Thriving Among the Thorns
Thriving Among the Thorns

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.
—Anaïs Nin

My house came with a mess of a garden. It was as messy as the divorce I was going through at the time: a forest of thorny, 6-foot-tall thistles with a rusty fire pit and an old plum tree. Cleaning up this garden and keeping it tidy gave me a sense of control I desperately needed.  

For several years I diligently weeded, added plants, grew vegetables, hosted alfresco discussion groups for church and s’more parties for kids. My garden became a healing place for one of my daughters as she recovered from a long illness. Little did I know that it was healing me, too.

I remarried, and when my daughter regained enough strength to launch herself back into life, I took a full-time office job. Gardening time shrunk to zero. My workload is especially heavy during spring, right when Chicago flora wakes up from deep winter slumber. By the time I get through it, it’s already July and my garden was too much of a mess to deal with. The space that I had kept immaculate and neat was now weedy and unkempt. Echinaceas were getting weaker and eaten almost to the ground by rabbits. Bee balms were withering, Russian sage was shrinking, and last spring the old plum tree didn’t wake up. I felt so guilty for letting all go. In three years it reverted back to being a thistle forest, now without the plum tree. I felt defeated. I kept the curtains drawn toward the remnant of my garden.

This year, after the spring madness at work had passed, my husband coaxed me outside to clean up. The ground was moist and we could pull the tall, prickly thistles without much effort. He counted: 291.

To my great surprise, the garden was thriving among thistles and other “weeds.” Thriving! Tall, skinny thistles not only didn’t shade other plants, but also were acting as support structures for perennials that needed some hand-holding while growing. Pesky creeping charlie turned out to be fantastic ground cover, keeping the soil cool and moist and controlling other kinds of “weeds.” Accidental green lantern plants were lifting false indigo. And the echinaceas were growing to be full height, supported and protected by everything around them.

I realized it is my inadvertent letting go that made this wild, interdependent beauty possible. And at that very moment, I knew I didn’t need that sort of control anymore. How liberating it was!

We left a grove of the thistles in one corner—an altar for my husband who loves thistles, and for me to thank them for welcoming me back to their garden.

Spirit of Life, Mother Nature, thank you for reminding us that we are intertwined in something much larger and beautiful and supported by it, even when we can’t see the whole picture. Grant us the strength to disrupt our routine ways of thinking and the courage to let go of any sense of control. And may we all learn to love the thistles of our lives. Amen.

About the Author

  • Tomo Hillbo serves as the Director of Communications at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. She is from Japan, a graphic designer, singer, mother, and wife of a Mennonite pastor from Sweden.

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