When I was in grad school, I became “highly focused” (read: obsessed) with hot peppers, and my tolerance for heat quickly outgrew the pepper selection at my local grocery. Soon my addiction had me driving across town twice a month to the Patel Brothers for their thai chilies. When my quest for burn still wasn’t sated it became clear that to have the hottest peppers, I would need to grow them myself.
My previous forays utilizing my green thumb had always ended tragically. Yet, my desire for the endorphins released from these scalding pods outweighed the fear of past failures. So, I started researching soil quality, frost dates, composting, and cedar. Each Saturday before the “approved” plant date I worked on some aspect of my garden. I tilled the earth one weekend, constructed the bed the next, and filled with dirt the following – all with the hope that my work would yield peppers. It was literally an act of faith. Finally, on the day approved by my farmers’ almanac, I tenderly planted my seedlings.
For the first days I fretted over every misplaced leaf, propped up plants with sticks, shielded sickly ones from too much sun, and diligently watered them. Hardly anything happened; almost nothing at all. It went on like this for weeks, me checking my plants, tending them, and barely anything significant occurring. At this rate I was doomed to bland food for the rest of my life. On one exceptionally sublime spring day I went out to my garden. Between the warm sun, the slight breeze, and my lazy dog, I found myself moving through my chores much more slowly than my normal frenzied pace. Then I finally caught it: I saw the growth I had been looking for.
When I slowed down, I started to notice all the things about my plants that were changing. As my my focus got smaller and smaller I came realize that things in my garden were growing, not a little, but a lot. It’s just that the “a lot” was happening on a very small scale. I went from looking at my garden as a whole to noticing each individual plant. The more detailed I got with my attention, the more my garden came alive. Changes were happening everyday, and I had just been moving too fast to see it. The more attuned to this patch of earth I became, the more I realized how vibrant a single eight by twelve section of dirt can really be. I started to notice how the leaves subtly shifted to soak up the sun, and the slight perk a plant would make a few minutes after being watered. I went to bed one night and awoke the next morning to find the tiniest flower had revealed itself on one of my precious plants. And that happened in twelve hours! When my focus grew smaller, my garden grew larger. I stopped being the director of my plants and became a supporting actor in their majestic show.
I started at Sage Hill with the intention of working with families, adolescents, and young adults. Recently, our Brentwood office became Sage Hill’s Center for Families and Adolescents. When I heard that they wanted me to move from the Nashville office to help, I immediately thought about Brentwood’s tiny garden. In the side yard by the Brentwood building, a small plot was started, but for the most part has remained forgotten—an afterthought, something to get to later. I have become highly focused (read: obsessed) with revitalizing it. The connection between gardening and therapy goes deep for me. Therapy is this place where the seeds of change are planted, nurtured, and cultivated. Therapy is a process that requires someone to be dutifully attuned to the person in front of them, while also aware that growth happens in its own time. It’s a patient loving-kindness.
All the components can be in place for a plant to grow, but it still takes hundreds of sunrises and sunsets before a flower blooms. In the same way a garden bed needs thoughtful attention, our Brentwood office needs the same. So space is getting cleared, offices are being rearranged, horseshoe pits are being planned, and people are moving in and out. Our hearts, hands, and minds are dreaming of what we will plant here. My garden has taught me that curious attention, consistency, rain, and sunshine will reveal the majesty of creation if I slow down and look closely. I’ll bring these lessons to our Brentwood Office and its tiny garden, and be at ease with the sun rising and falling over our efforts. One day I’ll show up and tiny flowers will have bloomed in a place where there once was nothing at all.
Chandler Ross, MSSW, L-MSW works with young adults, adolescents, and families at the Brentwood Office. Every year he grows a variety of hot peppers and turns them into hot sauce for friends all over the country.