As in a desert park suddenly teeming with life following a deluge, there are deeply planted seeds in our hearts, waiting to blossom like miracles springing to life. About a week ago I was chatting with my younger son Kevin, who lives with his wife and two little ones in Riverside, California. Now you may know that Riverside is actually built on desert land, but made to bloom by irrigation and effort. A lovely place!
Anyway, when Kev and his wife, Emily, heard about the western desert land that had recently sprung into blossoming because of the extraordinary rainfall the west has had this winter, they decided to go see. They rented some kind of sleep-in van, piled the kids into it, and went off to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southwestern California, wanting to experience this miracle for themselves. The lead photo and the others below show what they found.
Kev’s story and the photos were great (although apparently four humans camping in a van was a bit close!). Afterward – reflecting on the desert “miracle” itself – I began to see the unfolding of seeds long dormant in the desert as maybe a metaphor for your life and mine.
Before I heard that my son and family had taken this trip to see the desert flowers, I had already heard a piece about this blooming on NPR. And the geologist who was being interviewed noted that these seeds that had sprung to life as they were drenched by rain had been buried in the desert sand for years – decades even. And his comment about their dormancy was the image that caused me to muse about metaphor.
Actually what came to my mind in my musing were two pieces of creative art that have affected me greatly – one of my favorite movies of all time and a recent, favorite novel that I’ve spoken about in a recent blog. I think both film and book share something in common that is so hope-filled for you and me.
Do you remember Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets? And the book I’m thinking of is Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. Both central characters in these two works are deeply flawed persons. Nicholson’s character, named Melvin Udall, is an obsessive-compulsive, racist neurotic, who painfully and finally learns how to love another human being. And Ove is an incredible curmudgeon who also compulsively obsesses about the keeping and breaking of rules, rules that keep his world in order. But in the end, Ove displays self-sacrificing kindness and love to a neighbor in need. He also opens his heart to the Other – a messy Middle Eastern family who moves into his neighborhood, flattening his mailbox and crashing into his life, foreign folks in every respect, Other in spades! But in the end, Ove opens his heart and his life to those who come to share his world, loving him first and sharing love with him in the end.
What both Ove and Melvin Udall have in common is that in later life they learned to love and, as Tom Hanks has said, they became better versions of themselves. In the desert of their flawed selves, the seeds of their better selves sprang forth. Hence the metaphor of life that seemed to fit what my son and his family went to the desert to see.
Now this blossoming doesn’t always happen, does it? I mean, you’ve known folks who remain obsessive-compulsive, neurotic, resentful, racist, paranoid – a bleak desert to the bitter end of their days. But I think mostly this growth in wisdom, compassion, tolerance, contentment, and a generosity of spirit does occur in many if not most of us as we live out our days. And by the way, there are data to support this blossoming as we pass through middle age and beyond. I discuss this in my latest book, The Fiction of Our Lives – those studies that suggest something like a universal, U-shaped curve in contentment and generosity that seems to emerge in the second half of life.
One of the best writers who captures this shift toward a better self is Anne Lamott. I’m in the middle of a recent book by her titled Small Victories. (If you want to look at my sermon page, you’ll see that I also draw from this book as I tackle the hard subject of loving our enemies.) But to the point here, in a chapter titled “Dad,” Anne talks about her love for her father and her anger aimed at him after he died. It’s a deeply human and painful chapter to read. But in it she says the following:
… Getting older means that without meaning to, you accidentally forgive almost everyone – almost. … When, against all odds, over time, your heart softens toward truly heinous behavior on the part of parents, children, siblings, and everyone’s exes, you almost have to believe that something not of this earth snuck into your stone-cold heart. … You mostly forgive life for being so unfair, for having stolen away from and saddled us with so much, for being so excruciating to most of the world. You even semi-sort-of-mostly forgive yourself, for being so ridiculous, such a con, a nervous case, a loser …
You know by a certain age that, contrary to appearances, all of us are weird, with our squinchiness, jabs, denial, judgment, tone deafness, and we can also be so lovely that it breaks your heart. (Small Victories, pp. 105-7; 117)
Yes indeed. Small victories. Small miracles in the desert of life, blossoming over time, seeds deeply embedded there – as Anne muses, something perhaps not of this Earth. Deeply planted seeds in our hearts, waiting to blossom as – like Ove and Melvin Udall – miracles springing to life, learning to love in the end.