Country life offers enticing opportunities—the ability to tend a garden, to own livestock, to plan my year around the seasons of the land instead of the decorations at Target. Most of all, it offers the gift of being surrounded by the beauty of nature, not by strip malls and housing developments. It’s really all I’ve wanted. But even my small attempts to create beauty in my suburban backyard have been foiled this year by my chronic illness.
Then the Disease Took Over
Living in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains for fifteen years spoiled me with its beauty. Sometimes I sought it, hiking to the top of Humpback Rocks to gaze over the Shenandoah Valley spread out below. Sometimes the beauty surprised me as I caught the play of the sun and the clouds on the mountains through my apartment window. But ever since I moved to Texas, it’s been hard to find that beauty again, that country life I long for.
Even if I had no physical limitations, finding natural beauty in my central Texas town is a challenge. No distant peaks peer through my window, and the intense heat turns an walk through the woods into a test of endurance. Still, just a few minutes in the car can take me past pastures full of cattle, horses, or goats, tree-lined drives, and open fields that seem to stretch to the horizon. And our little backyard holds a palm tree, a few rose bushes, and several raised flower beds.
But since moving here at the end of 2012, I can count the country drives I’ve taken on one hand, and the hours I’ve spent tending our yard barely exceed that number. Job stress, depression, and anxiety accompanied several long years of infertility. Then, despite the joy of a near-miracle pregnancy, a premature C-section and a baby who nursed around the clock wore out my body and overwhelmed my mind. And just a few months after I weaned my little boy, the endometriosis that had been hiding in my abdomen for two decades suddenly flared, requiring two surgeries and leaving me bedridden for months.
Before the disease took over, I had started the process of reclaiming our neglected yard: we paid a lawn company to dig out the dying trees, cut back all the vines, and uncover the bushes and flower beds. I planned to weed and plant and prune all through the following spring because my soul had reawakened to my need to see beauty out my window. As my son toddled around the winter-dead grass, I rejoiced at the prospect of teaching him the truths God has hidden in dirt and roots and blossoms. Then in January, stabbing pain began radiating out of my stomach, and all my plans were laid aside.
Reading was the only thing that could take my mind off the pain. In the pages of Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis and Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery, my longing for the beauty of the created world was kindled into flame. I walked with Jack Lewis over the hills outside Dublin to catch a glimpse of the sea. I flitted down the leafy Tomorrow Road and through Cousin Jimmy’s lush garden with Emily Byrd Starr. I rarely left my house, but at least for a few moments, I could surround myself with the beauty that filled these books.
But then reality would come crashing back. I don’t live on a bluff overlooking the Irish Sea, or on a small farm in coastal Canada. I live in a medium-sized college town in a medium-sized neighborhood in a medium-sized house. There are a few nice parks, and the university campus is lovely in spots, but much of the natural areas in the city require parking and walking to access. The endless summer heat and my constant pain rendered them unreachable, and heavy painkillers removed the option of driving to take in those country views I love so much.
If only I could beat discontent
As the pain has finally begun to recede, grumbling has overcome my soul. If only I could see mountains from my bedroom window. If only my backyard was large and sloping and filled with trees and deer, like the yard at my house in Virginia. If only it were even just a little cooler, I could muster up the energy to go to the park for a little while. Maybe then my beauty-starved soul would be satisfied.
Seeking beauty is a good pursuit. I desperately need it. Beauty uniquely nourishes my heart. But how do I avoid the ravening beast of discontent as I look for beauty to add to my life? How do I love my city, where I am right now, instead of being angry that it isn’t surrounded by mountains? What do I do with this longing to pick up and move to the countryside?
I thought turning our overgrown backyard into a beautiful retreat could be the first step. As I’ve slowly recovered from my second—hopefully final—surgery, a few pockets of energy on pain-free days have given me hope that I might be able to try a little weeding and pruning on a cool morning. Then just this week, a brisk early breeze promised the kind of day I had been waiting for. But despite the cooler air and my own limited physical exertion, the heat of the sun still left me sweating, and my frustration with the central Texas climate came rushing in once again.
Addressing discontent feels like wrestling an octopus. Just when I think I’ve got one slippery arm under control, two more whap me over the head with a splat. If only it wasn’t so hot. If only our yard was nicer. If only my pain would go away. If only I could live somewhere with a mountain view.
It’s a different kind of discontent than I’ve dealt with in the past. Old frustrations usually revolved around relational or work circumstances, like a stressful office job, longing for a baby, or wishing for deeper fellowship. This one is more concrete. It’s tangible things I wish were different.
My God knows the grief of human limitation
Tangible things can provide healing, too. A cheap bunch of “filler” flowers that lasts for weeks—though they may be the kind of flowers that just happen to look good dried or dead. The satisfying clink of knitting needles as they slide around luxurious velvety yarn. The decades-old curtain, faded from its once-pristine white to a quiet cream, with its simple lace edging that might even be handmade.
And a God who took on flesh, just like mine, who knows the grief of human limitation. He understands my sadness that our ugly, overgrown backyard isn’t how it was meant to be. He knows I am parched for beauty because of my physical circumstances. He had to spend all his time on earth in a dry, scrubby land, instead of visiting his most spectacular creations.
Wouldn’t Jesus have loved to climb Half-Dome, or stand on the cliffs at Big Sur and watch the ocean he made crash against the rocks? Did he ever see snow? Was he longing for the cold, pristine purity of the Alps as he walked the dusty roads of Judea? Did he wish for unlimited energy, unlimited time, not just for ministry, but for enjoying the world he made?
Despite having the power of the God who created the universe at his fingertips, Jesus only exercised his divine power to advance his kingdom—never to indulge his own desires. The man who could command the wind and waves could certainly transport himself anywhere on earth, but Jesus chose to stay with the land and people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He chose years of mundane life as a local carpenter over traveling the world before his public ministry began. He chose to spend his days in a community that regarded him with confusion, contempt, and finally hatred. Jesus knows the feeling of being made for more.
He must understand even the specific longing of mine to live in the country and tend a garden and ride my horse down to the mailbox every afternoon. And he knows as well of my more immediate desires: to get out of the city sometimes, to conquer our backyard so we can play outside, and to grow a few flowers and vegetables next to the house. He has personally experienced the temptation to doubt God’s plan for his life.
Being known in my discontent points me away from murmuring with frustration at God, and toward the courage to take small steps after little goals. When it feels like I achieve nothing for days on end, Jesus comforts me with the knowledge that only one eleventh of his life was spent in ministry. Were the years Jesus spent as a child and as a carpenter wasted? Of course not. He was working day by day to live the perfect life that bought my righteousness. He can redeem my limitations by pointing me toward small acts of trust, helping me find beauty first in him. Because on the rare days when my heart is most hidden in what Jesus has done for me, my eyes are opened to see beauty in every moment.
Cover photo by Victor Xok.