“But Och! I backward cast my e’e,” – Robert Burns, “To A Mouse” (excerpt from poem below)
Lent is an excellent time to review our lives, and this year I decided to step back from the weeds of life and tend the overgrowth of my past. My clearing of the brush brought me much sorrow, a touch of shame, and a bit of joy. I tend to focus, dare I say obsess, over my failures, and I try to deeply bury them with a hope that they will one day bear positive fruit. Sometimes they rot in the soil. But sometimes they blossom into new life.
For my actual garden at home, I spend the winter composting; all organic food waste goes into the bin, and then turn I it over in the spring. I usually pick the first warm Sunday to prep my pots and mix in the compost with rich new soil. What I find interesting is the new life that often sprouts from the compost. Vegetable seeds and roots get mixed together, and instead of rotting throughout the winter, they lie dormant, and then take root in the spring. Where I had planted, let’s say green beans, I now also have potatoes, onions, or carrots.
For my seniors in a second semester English class, I especially want them to understand the potential growth that exists…even from literature they don’t yet appreciate, from assignments they may protest, and from work they’d rather avoid. We recently reviewed an essay written by Isaac Asimov called, “The Cult of Ignorance.” (1980) In this 40-year-old essay, Asimov discusses how in the United States there lies an idea that “My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” I chose to discuss this article because my seniors had been reluctant to continue working on practically anything in class. As one young man put it, “I don’t have to work this semester because I’m almost done and I’m taking it easy.” (I suggested he tell his parents the exact same thing that night…then make arrangements for summer school; he may have been accepted into college but he hasn’t graduated high school yet.)
My point to him is that his inactivity is a defiant activity, much like actively choosing ignorance over knowledge. By choosing not to work while he is in school he was choosing not to try new things, even up until the very end. I tried to explain that by not reading new books, he will never know what could take root and bloom in the compost of his attitude. I reminded him that the harvest hasn’t come in yet; this summer while his friends are having the best time of the past four years, they have been uprooted and free to explore unfettered, he will be rotting on the vine in summer school.
While in some areas for growth to occur something must be planted, I have also found that to thrive in other areas, something must be trimmed. For me that has been felt most profoundly in relationships. I’ve pruned many friendships down from my life. Often times these relationships developed an incurable fungus and infected my attempt at a bountiful harvest. I learned the painful lesson that sometimes you have to cut the dead trees down so the forest can grow strong: from that decomposing matter, new life can spring.
Whether it is through cutting back or planting seeds, cultivating a healthy crop takes preparation, care, and effort. During this Lent season, I pray we can each tend carefully to our lives. Even the most wretched, rotten, repulsive compost can offer up a blooming, beautiful, bountiful harvest.
To a Mouse
BY ROBERT BURNS
On Turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785.
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
’S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss ’t!
Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.
That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!