A Lesson From Shoveling Mulch
One of the earliest memories I have of life back in Ohio is shoveling mulch in the summer. I could feel the oppressive rays of the sun persuading me to race back inside where I was promised cold, refreshing water, but my older brother always insisted we continued piling black mulch on top of the soil.
“The faster we work, the sooner we get done,” he assured me. I wasn’t amused. The ache in my muscles did not care for his cliche captain obvious remarks. As I felt my skin cooking in the midwestern heat, I couldn’t stop thinking to myself: What’s the point?
It didn’t make sense to me; we would spend the better part of two days piling on at least 20 bags of mulch to cover the plot in the garden only for the wind to blow and the sky to rain, eroding all the mulch we worked so hard to place. Why were we spending so much time and putting so much work into something that could never last? Every summer we’d repeat the same cycle of buying mulch, piling it on, and waiting for it to blow away.
When I got a little bit older and was less afraid of questioning my parents, I asked them the question burning in my head for years: why? Why do we spend so much time and money on this? My mother gave me an answer that puzzled me.
“It looks nice. Even if it’s for a moment, it looks nice.” I could tell she did not put much thought into her response, as if it should have already been clear. Again, I was not amused.
At that time, I was about 13 years old, I was still going through that annoying pre-teen phase, and my first reaction was well, why should I care? After all, if someone sees our yard and thinks it looks disheveled or horrible, that’s their own opinion. How should that affect me? But as I learned more, read more, and took more classes in high school, I started to realize that appearance isn’t vain. Appearance doesn’t have to be people-pleasing, and appearance at its base can serve a bigger purpose.
For instance, if you have ever seen me write with a pencil or pen, you’d know I have very neat handwriting, but it does come at a price: I write extremely slowly. Often, people would notice and comment that those perfect round letters aren’t worth the cost of my glacial writing pace. To them, this is just another ploy to gain approval from my instructors when I turn in a prim and proper paper.
But they’re wrong. Though I’ll admit I did play the role of teacher’s pet from time to time, that was never the aim with my neat handwriting. Whenever I doll up my paper and worsen my writer’s callus, that is me putting on my gardening gloves and shoveling mulch. I’m putting that work in for my lawn, for my growth, for my plants.
And let me be clear– it’s not because I want to have the best lawn in the neighborhood or that I want my lawn to be the object of everybody’s envy. It’s simpler than that. It’s because after working for long hours over two days, I can have a sense of accomplishment. I can lean back, have a glass of water, and say it looks nice. Even if it’s for a moment and even if nobody sees, it’s okay– it still looks nice.
My challenge to all of you is to reject the idea that your accomplishments only matter if there is someone to congratulate you, to perceive you. Have the courage to say “no, I’m not trying to impress anybody but myself,” because, at the end of the day, the mulch is going to wash away anyway.