Garden of gratitude

Story by Jill McSheehy

Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone joking or lamenting about 2020. No argument here. In some ways, the last nine months have passed like a nightmare from which none of us can awake. In a way, we’ve experienced a months-long collective grief.

As such, giving thanks in November 2020 may prove to be a greater challenge. Yet, I think the exercise of seeking gratitude is needed more now than ever.

The Bible speaks of gratitude as an antidote to anxiety, and secular research backs up this wisdom. Grateful people possess healthier bodies, more whole minds, and more contented hearts.

In a month normally marked by thanksgiving, November 2020 threatens to bring anxiety to all-time highs. What do we do with the mounting pressures to our minds and spirits?

I think it’s fitting to practice the very thing November in America is known for. It may take some mental exercise, but we can do it. I’ll go first.

I recall my first feeling of gratitude in late March. I walked in my yard on an early spring day, searching for a sense of normalcy as life ground to a halt. With my Slogger boots on, I headed to my garden. I don’t remember what work I did exactly, but I remember the feeling well. This feels normal. For just a couple of hours, the garden — nature — led me to a place of familiarity. In that moment, I gave thanks that COVID for us in the northern hemisphere descended in the spring. It’s a small thing, yes, but I couldn’t let it go.

Nature became the balm that soothed my wound. And as I soon discovered, I wasn’t alone.

As someone who connects with gardeners worldwide, I saw this on an even broader scale. I heard countless stories of people who started gardens because “there was nothing else to do.” The garden brought families together. It gave children and teenagers something to do with their hands. It provided career-focused men and women the opportunity to start this dream hobby they’d been putting off for years.

But gardening provided some people with more than just something to do with extra time at home. One woman emailed me that she was taking care of her son’s teenaged friend who had survived a suicide attempt. Together, she and this young man tended a tiny plot in her backyard. She testified to the progress and healing he experienced through it.

A single woman in her 20s told me that her garden gave her something to cling to as she experienced waves of loneliness and depression during the lockdowns.

Another woman shared that she had been laid off from work and was now growing her own vegetables to put food on the table because money was tight.

Many of these true “victory gardeners” have since embraced gardening as a lifestyle and not simply a stop-gap during shutdowns. As we head into fall, they are excitedly planning their next gardens — looking toward a brighter future in their own backyards.

Gardening in 2020 nourished a generation of new gardeners in both body and spirit. Seasoned gardeners shared their wisdom and connected with other gardeners. Seeing this on a broad scale wells up gratitude in me because I know that pockets of good exist in the midst of the fear-laden headlines.

Not everyone turned to gardening in 2020, of course, but even without gardening, people opened their doors. I visited my mother-in-law one April day in a Russellville neighborhood and couldn’t count the number of people walking and biking. State parks bustled with activities. Boats and bikes sold out. Backyard building projects soared.

Nature — in many forms — drew us outside. And nature soothed our collective souls.

As we head into a month and a season of unknowns, and as darkness encroaches both literally and figuratively, choosing gratitude brings light. It brings hope. This year more than ever, it may be more of an exercise, but we all know exercise is good for us.

So perhaps in 2020, we should take the moniker, “choose gratitude” a little further. Let’s “exercise gratitude.” For the big things, for the little things, and for knowing that nature has a lesson for us all: no matter how dark it gets, spring is coming.