the garden

Can I tell you guys about this metaphor I’ve been building with a student? I think it’s pretty useful. It’s like this:

Think of your mind as a garden. When you’re born, you’ve got this space, this rich and fertile soil, and all this potential.

And your family and your culture start to plant things. They plant language and they plant attitudes and they plant ideas about bodies and sex and relationships.

And gradually, as you move through adolescence, you take on responsibility for tending your own garden, right?

And you may find that your family and your culture have planted some really great, beautiful things; you may also find that they have planted some PRETTY TOXIC CRAP in your garden!!

And that means that you’re now in the position of having to go through your garden, inch by inch, row by row, as the man said, and figure out what you want to keep and nurture, and what you need to dig out and replace with something healthier.

Some of us get lucky with families and cultures that plant good, healthy stuff. Some of us are not so lucky and end up with years of excavation and landscaping before we have the gardens we want for ourselves.

Sometimes that those toxic pants and that excavation leaves scars. Sometimes we’re just barely in time to rescue some beautiful little flower that is nearly strangled by the rampaging exotics of the thin ideal or heteronormativity or racism.

But of course it’s not just the plot of land (nature) and the family and culture who work on it (nurture), it’s the impact the land has on the growth of the plants, and the impact the plants have on the land. Not all plants grow equally well in all soils, and some plants deplete or enrich the soil in which they grow. If you plant a bad idea in temperamentally resistant soil, the idea won’t take root. In contrast, if you plant a dangerous idea, it could not only take root but strangle other plants and drain even the most resilient of soils of its nutrients; if you dig up that plant, your options for replanting there are limited by the need to replenish the soul.

And it applies as much to the attitudes about OTHERS that were planted as it does to the attitudes about yourself.

You get to choose whether or not to continue judging or fearing or being contemptuous of… anybody. You get to decide whether to leave that stuff in your garden or uproot it! It’s not an infinite range of choice, but it IS choice.

Of course this is just the individual-level process. Together, all our separate gardens tie together to make much larger, cultural-level gardens, and you can hardly be expected to eradicate dangerous cultural-level weeds when they’re spreading from garden to garden, underground, unchosen by you or your family, strangling your own autonomous choices through a simple accident of geography. But heck, if you can keep on weeding your garden, hacking away at the roots of invading cultural bullshit, you’re doing your part to kill it dead.

And sometimes people need help in their garden. And sometimes you want to fix someone else’s garden for them. Sometimes it’s your business; often it’s not. And sometimes other people want to come tell you how to fix your garden. Sometimes it’s their business; often it’s not.

All of which reminds me of Bernstein’s interpretation of Candide:

Let dreamers dream
What worlds they please
Those Edens can’t be found.
The sweetest flowers,
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
And make our garden grow!