This morning as I was out digging dandelions in the sun, I noticed myself unconsciously making choices. It set me to thinking about human action and freedom.
I’m quite fond of the quirky little piece of downtown property where my wife and I live and raised our family. I love my wife’s garden. I love our art studio. I like our fruit trees. I like that our yard is not fenced in. And I really like that there is no Homeowners Association (HOA.) This allows me to do things like dig a pit and cook a turkey in the ground at Thanksgiving. Or to add outdoor art to my property. Our “inner city” neighborhood has a lot of cool, creatively embellished properties, and a lot of urban farming going on. Several neighbors keep chickens and bees in their backyards. These are usually among the best kept properties. I love this.
Of course there is the occasional trashy property as well, and the occasional display of poor taste. This is part of the cost of freedom. I think it is a small price to pay.
This post is a brief tale of two neighbors. It’s a story about the dynamics of living in community. (I’m pretty sure neither of my neighbors reads my blog.)
I will call my neighbor on one side, Harvey. Harvey is a middle-aged, single guy. We’re buds. We’ve talked a lot about life, God, politics, and stuff, in a dude sort of way. I like a lot of Harvey’s views, though he can be a little pugnacious. But underneath his crusty, cigar-smoking exterior, as human beings go, he’s a good man. He volunteers his time and resources to help under-privileged kids. For years he has worked with the deaf community in one capacity or another. He has purchased my art and books on several occasions. He has given us pecans from his farm in another state. I like Harvey.
A few years ago, Harvey adopted an enormous dog. A black lab, or something. I’ll call him Dogzilla. Dogzilla is clueless and friendly. I’d say he’s a little too friendly. He often escapes his pen and comes immediately into our yard, snuffling around and peeing in our garden, where we grow food that we intend to eat. Dogzilla produces enormous poop that doesn’t decompose because Harvey feeds him cheap dog food. Sometimes at night, I’ve noticed Harvey letting Dogzilla out for a potty break, while he enjoys a cigar in our shared alley. Recently, I shoveled all of Dogzilla’s petrified poop back into Harvey’s yard. I haven’t told Harvey about this yet, but if he doesn’t like it, I’m looking forward to the conversation where he explains why he has a problem with me putting his dog’s poop back into his yard.
Harvey pieced together a make-shift pen for Dogzilla. The makeshift pen is quite large and consists of five-foot sections of chain-link fencing, held up with bungee cords and stacks of cinder blocks, with a tarp thrown over part of the fence for shade. With dandelions and goat heads growing all around. It looks like crap. It’s very reminiscent of a third world slum, or a refugee camp. Of course, I have nothing against third world slum dwellers or refugees, but I don’t believe that Harvey and Dogzilla are in a crisis situation. Unless you count the dandelion crisis. But even so, that’s really a first world problem.
So that’s on one side of my house.
Then there is my neighbor on the other side. I’ll call her Betsy. She is an interior designer. Her house and yard look like a greeting card scene. She’s like Martha Stewart without the prison record. Her property has been on the annual Loveland Garden Tour. It’s like a Disney movie over there, with rabbits and birds and butterflies hopping and flitting about. When I step out of my house to go to work in my studio, if I happen to glance over to the right at Betsy’s property, I often break into song.
Betsy is also a great neighbor and a giving person. She is from an old Loveland family, and it’s fun to talk local history with her. My wife and Betsy exchange gardening plants. I have painted several paintings in her sanctuary-like backyard during plein air art competitions. (I have never asked Harvey’s permission to paint in his “yard.”) During winter, she always has her snow removal guys do part of my sidewalk. At Christmastime we exchange Christmas cookies, and hers are amazing, and ridiculously Martha Stewart-like. (Harvey does not give us cookies, but that is probably a good thing.)
That’s the other side of my house.
So, when I went out for my first springtime dandelion digging, guess where I started digging first? I headed directly to Betsy’s side of my yard. I wanted to be sure she didn’t have to wonder if I was going to get rid of the dandelions next to her property. (Her yard is dandelions-free.) She has never complained to me about my sometimes lax grounds keeping. She doesn’t have to. Because she treats her property with care, it makes me want to do the same. Not out of guilt, or shame, or keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, but out of respect and appreciation for the effort and creative care she puts in. I’ve noticed that she likes to entertain guests in her garden, and I would like to not be the jerk who ruins the sanctuary vibe that that she has going on over there. All of this is unspoken. I could completely neglect my property, and the world would keep turning, but the fact that she cares helps me to care.
Isn’t so much of life like this?
All of us struggle every day against entropy and degeneration, in every aspect of life. The physical universe is winding down. Left to itself, our environment gravitates toward disorder and decay. Civil society naturally tends toward confusion and degeneration. Even the genes in our cells are continually mutating, causing our bodies to degenerate and eventually lose function. But we fight against this. By intelligence, creativity, and work, we rebuild, restore, support, and hope. Ultimately, our only hope for salvation is an intelligent, loving, regenerative Life-Source existing outside of creation, commonly referred to as “God.” But whether or not we believe in such a God, most of us still hold onto hope. I find this bittersweet.
For me, every creative act is worth something. While even our hoping and dreaming is imperfect, every hope and dream in the face of futility testifies that we were created for life, love, and goodness. Creative acts affirm life. Caring acts make the universe make sense to our neighbor. Loving acts transcend the futility of our hopeless trajectory, in some small way. To me these things signal that there is something better to come.
I’ll close with some gardening tips from the apostle Paul:
“…whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:7-10.)
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