No Mistakes, Just Experiments

August 6, 2014

I love the liberating sensation of being out on the wide open highway, especially when I’m driving alone late at night. It’s almost theatrical: streetlamps light the asphalt and memories of old personal dramas take center stage, edging out my usual mental clutter. Right one cue, I start thinking too much, mostly about roads not taken and mistakes I’ve made along the way.

Only the classic rock station – a pleasure I’m denied when my eye-rolling sons are with me — keeps me from sinking entirely into melancholia. Instead, the songs provide the perfect soul-searching soundtrack and my singing takes me to a younger, unwrinkled place in time.

While on the way home from a wedding a few months ago, I was in the throes of a great song and a slightly embarrassing memory when a garden center billboard jarred me out of my flashback. The sign, which has boasted the same special on arborvitae and lawn statuary for years, offered this to ponder instead:


Noooo, I thought at first. But later, I conceded that yes, in gardening, it’s true. I’ve uprooted enough unruly plants to know that gardens give us as many chances to get things right as we’re willing to give ourselves. At that moment, however, I was unable to take the message at face value. Metaphorically, the billboard was wrong.

After all, we’re human. We fill up on mistakes like we’re loading a shopping cart at the market. And in parenting, oy, all the more so! We don’t have the time to cover the moments I wish I could do over with my children. But I’ll mention here only that I’d definitely listen better to what my then young boys were shouting with conviction from the timeout chair and I’d stop myself before offering unsolicited advice to my teens on their summer haircuts.

Our wise sages and holy books teach us to forgive one another our misdeeds. We are enjoined to judge our peers favorably, to always look for the silver lining. Once a year, we spend an entire day recounting our transgressions against G-d and His creations in pursuit of a clean slate. But when we awake the next morning, we are likely to trip over the inability to absolve ourselves.

I forgive my boys quickly, and they forgive me, too, in the miraculous way you do when you love someone unconditionally, and the infractions aren’t terrible. In fact, they don’t even remember that I ignored their timeout rants for the sake of my hearing (and my sanity). I’ve continued to self-flagellate anyway, pounding away at my own heart.

But this summer, everything feels different. I go to sleep each night with hopeful prayers on my lips, only to wake up to news reports of new losses and heightened fear, as if we could ramp up our angst any more. Not even a good song has managed to numb my sadness for long. It seems like an opportune time to quit the concept of foolish regret and throw my energy elsewhere.

I, for one, believe that a garden need not be masterful to be beautiful. Case in point: the $1.60 investment in seed packs I tossed haphazardly into soil containers in May. Despite my lack of careful planning, they have still produced a lovely array of simple flowers bursting with happy colors in pot after pot along our front steps.

And yet, I have learned more, changed more, from the singular packet that produced nothing. I gave it the same watering attention as I did the others. The same sun shone down upon it day in and day out, and yet, it remains a brown jumble of empty soil. Still, I leave it there as a reminder that one dud does not diminish the glory of an entire garden nor the essential goodness of our own well-meaning souls.

It is that row of flower pots that has kept me afloat this summer, enabling me to see something splendid through the fog of my tears. I cannot walk past them without admiring their petals. I pause, too, to thank G-d for the sun and rain that made them blossom so bravely in a world turned on its head.

In this way, I stumbled upon the broader wisdom in that gardening center billboard. Human error is inevitable. Imperfection is an essential part of our fabric. “Experiment” is just code for easing up on ourselves, because our mistakes are not the problem. It is by dwelling on them after we’ve settled our debts that we keep ourselves from moving forward.

Better to spin our missteps into a series of “We tried, now let’s try again” opportunities. Even better, let’s recognize our fallibility as a fount of chances to set things right, to repair the world, or to get as close as we possibly can. Better still, let’s cherish our blessings and pray for peace, and for some peace of mind.