Every morning I go for a jog. A jog is like a run, but slower. I used to call what I do running, but as every man, woman, and child passed me one day, I came to the conclusion that I must be jogging. I have jogged the same route every day for more than a decade. My route is 3.5 miles long and takes me nearly the exact amount of time daily. I actually don’t like running or jogging. I find it miserable from the first step to the last. It is, however, the one thing that seems to keep me from living in the doctor’s office and continually buying bigger clothes.
Over the years, learning while exercising has helped to distract my mind from the misery of my body. Sometimes I listen to audiobooks; other times I try to learn something from the world around me. When I began running, I chose a route that would take me past some of the most beautiful yards in our city. The many trees provided shade and the beauty of the grounds gave some pleasant diversion. Over the years two particular yards have each taught me great lessons.
The first yard has always been one of my favorites. I rarely saw the owners, but their meticulous care of the lawn and shrubbery gave me great pleasure. For at least 10 years, it was always the same—well trimmed, green, and beautiful. Then one week early in the spring something unexpected happened. A few weeds appeared in the flower beds. Normally, they would have been taken care of right away, but these weeds stayed. Then the edges of the lawn, where the sprinklers struggled to reach, began to turn brown. The yard in general was still gorgeous, but after looking at the same yard over the course of 10 years, it was noticeable to me. Over that spring and summer, little by little, the grounds continued to deteriorate. By the late fall, it looked much like many of the other yards around the city and it eventually became one of the worst on my route.
I couldn’t jog by without feeling a sense of sadness. What was happening in that house? Were they alright? How, after 10 years or more, could this yard be slipping into disrepair? I was so curious that I was tempted to knock on their door and ask, but I wasn’t sure what I would say; “Hi, I was just jogging by and noticed you have weeds. Can you explain that to me?”
This all happened at a very interesting time in my life. I was in my mid-30s, we had 5 children and my wife was expecting our 6th. She had just been put on bed rest and I was in the first semester of my PhD program. I was also working a regular 40 hour week and directing a children’s choir on the side. One day as I jogged by, thinking, “How could they let something so beautiful be so neglected?” the words ricocheted back and hit me like a bullet. There were some beautiful things in my life that were being neglected and in danger of deterioration if I didn’t act quickly!
Marriages, families, and friends are a lot like yards. They aren’t inanimate objects that you “buy and keep.” They take some planning. Having a vision of what you want your family to become will start you off right. They need to be watered and fertilized all the time. You can’t water them once, or even frequently when they are young, and assume it will suffice when they are teenagers or after 20 years of marriage. Weeds get into every relationship, especially marriages. You’ve got to be on the constant lookout for them and get them when they are young and easy to pull. Sometimes, the regular sprinkler can’t cover everything; some situations and some children take very specific and individual attention.
Our lives will be their most beautiful when we are gardeners in every sense of the word. We’ve got to know the plants and what they need to grow. How much sun, and how much watering, and what kind of fertilizer to use. We also need to understand where the weeds grow and what bugs are likely to attack and how to get them out. It is definitely a job that takes constant attention, but the rewards are beyond compare.
The second yard that intrigued me sat behind a very large and beautiful home. It had at least 50 trees on the property and was surrounded by a 3 foot stone wall. The home had a redwood deck that overlooked a sand volleyball court. All around the edges of the home and large yard were flowerbeds. When I first jogged by, the yard looked fine. By “fine” I mean that it wasn’t really run down. There were flowers but they were mixed with some weeds. The volleyball net was “hanging in there,” and the grass had been mowed. One might have said, “What a great backyard,” but probably would not have said, “Your yard is so beautiful,” even though the scheme was very elaborate.
Over the course of 10 years that yard got a little worse every year. Eventually the numerous flowerbeds became weed beds. The volleyball net fell down, the lawn turned brown, and the trees began to die. I had the feeling that it wasn’t just pure neglect, but that the yard was just too much for the owners to keep up. It had been elaborately planned, elegantly designed, but they had failed to count the cost to maintain it.
This yard often reminded me of a story that came out of WWII regarding Operation Market Garden. The allied troops intended to seize a large number of key bridges along a stretch of road that pushed into the Netherlands. If successful, the operation would allow them to break through German lines and outflank German defenses. As they surveyed the plans for the operation, British lieutenant-General Frederick Browning was reported to have said, “I think we may be going a bridge too far.” His statement turned out to be true. The Allied forces encountered many unexpected and unforeseen challenges that were impossible to overcome with their troops thinly stretched across the long tract of road. The eventual casualty count approached fifteen thousand.
Sometimes as parents we set the most glorious plans for our families and children. We load our schedules up with flowerbeds, volleyball courts, orchards, lawns, and all the trimmings. But do we count the cost of maintaining it all? More is not always better. I know too many adults who trudge from one “wonderful opportunity” to the next, dragging their children to the next “life-changing” event. They become loaded down with every possible lesson and camp until finally they realize they can’t do it all, and stop doing anything.
Let me conclude with a “What Now?” The past two years of jogging have seen great changes in each of these yards. A “FOR SALE” sign eventually went up in the first yard. The new owners came in and tore out everything that had been there before. I was stunned and wondered why they didn’t restore life to the once wonderful landscape. Then over the course of a summer they installed landscape lighting, rock walls, paths, benches, and all sorts of greenery. Through their careful attention, they had made the once beautiful yard better than I had ever dreamed it could be. Relationships, too, can start over and become better than ever. The owners of the second yard eventually sold the back half as a building lot, and another beautiful home is being built. Many of the trees have come down and the yard is being redone to a much more manageable size and design. Yes, families are like yards—with the right plan and attention they will provide a life-time of enjoyment.