Squirrels ate all of my mother’s home-grown tomatoes this year. My parents have always kept a garden, and my mother had to learn to do all of the work herself after my father died. It hasn’t been easy. After months of struggling with bird nets and automatic watering systems, all things my father had fashioned out of scrap supplies in their garage, she finally had the tomatoes in place, safe from birds, weeded, all on her own.
Then, for the first time in the decades my parents have had the garden, squirrels managed to worm their way over the fence and under the netting and carried off every last tomato. The garden, and maintaining the garden, has been a consistent symbol of my mothers continued love for my father since his death, her project in his honor, her way of persevering. The tomatoes were usually our family’s most productive plants, with our dining room table being routinely covered in hundreds of ripe tomatoes every summer, my mother forcing grocery store bags of tomatoes on our postman, our neighbors, giving them to me to bring with me if I went to a friend’s house.
Now, the first summer my mother did the full garden on her own, there were no tomatoes. Stolen by squirrels. To add insult to injury, my mother has hated squirrels since childhood. Her lifelong nemesis come to spite her.
My mother is taking up her garden this week, ripping out the plants and letting the ground rest until next spring. The chance for more tomatoes has officially passed. She told me about the squirrels and the garden, and I felt the pang of grief, for her, for my father, of failure at something someone tried their very best at.
She explained to me that it was a drought year. Maybe the squirrels needed the tomatoes to survive. Enemies though they were to her, she wanted them to live. Maybe their thievery would lead to wild tomatoes, feeding the wild rabbits, raccoons, and chipmunks for generations to come. The great blue herons we loved to watch stalking through our shallow creek bed might be fed from the bugs burrowing out of those wild tomatoes.
Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we fail because of things we don’t control. Sometimes we do everything right, and squirrels steal the harvest that meant the world to us. And sometimes it hurts. It stings more than we think failure should because we really were trying our best. There’s not always a lesson to be learned, a way for it to be avoided in the future.
The Next Season
So here’s the question, do we plant the garden again next year? When we do fail, when our team falls apart, when our project fails due to circumstances that we couldn’t have planned for, and which very well might happen again, do we have it in ourselves to try again?
A second attempt is easier when you feel like you can improve your chances, but if the odds are exactly the same, if the failure will sting just as much the second time, are you willing to try again? Many great inventors and innovators discuss resilience to failure as one of the great precursors to success. We all have heard stories of pitches being ignored 100 times before they were accepted, or books being turned down by dozens of publishers before they make it big. We celebrate those tales of tough, never-give-up type leaders, but only once we know how the story ends.
What do we do from the middle of the story? Do we have it in us to fail over and over again? For every story we hear about an innovator who finally succeeded after 100 attempts, there must be ten times as many who never do. Are we ok with that risk? Are we willing to have our hearts broken over and over again for whatever idea we are chasing?
It’s ok if we aren’t. If my mother decides not to do a garden next year, I won’t blame her. If she decides she wants to focus on other projects, invest her heart in surer bets, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. If we decide we need to let an idea lay fallow after a few heartbreaks, or need to focus our hearts elsewhere, or let other people take charge for a while, that’s all fine, we are called to seasons of rest, of Sabbath, of letting the ground lay fallow.
But I hope, be it next year, or a couple years after that, you’ll find it in you to try again, to continue to chase the things that you care so much about that it breaks your heart when they don’t work out. Who knows, maybe this next time will be different, and my mom and I will once again offer up bags of ripe tomatoes as a congratulations.
So good. Somehow this story about tomatoes captured how painful it is when a project falls apart.