May 20, 2011

Because I Have Always Done it That Way

Like a lot of folks I enjoy gardening. Or, at least I enjoy the end result of gardening: a backyard that is pretty to look at and relaxing to be in. Spending time weeding, watering, and planting is decent physical exercise. As long as I remember to put on enough sun screen it is also a safe activity, even in the Arizona sun.

Over the years my wife and I have changed a plain-Jane backyard with nothing put a few scraggly bushes and lots of grass into a mini oasis. While there is still more I would like to remove, fully 30% of the original lawn has been replaced with flower beds, trees, and bushes. Over time those bushes have been converted to low water, low maintenance plants.

We had a Ramada built, expanded the original porch to add a dining/sitting area, rigged up a small fountain to provide the relaxing sound of falling water, and made sure the view from windows was colorful and engaging. It has been a 10 year process but we are happy with the result. It has become part of my satisfying retirement lifestyle.

One of the steps I have taken every year about this time is to pull out all the winter/spring flowers from about forty pots. Then I replant with something that will survive an Arizona summer. There are a handful of flowering plants that can tolerate 105 degrees for 4 months and still look pretty. Yes, all those pots have to be watered every single day, but I like the idea that the backyard would still be a full of color.

Proving that it is never too late to learn, I stopped before replanting all those pots again last weekend. It occurred to me that Betty and I rarely sit outside from now until late September. It is just too darn hot. We can be on the porch for 30-40 minutes in the early morning to read the paper along with our morning coffee or tea. But, since we no longer get a daily newspaper even that brief period to enjoy all those flowers doesn't exist.

So, why exactly was I going to spend the money on plants, potting soil, and fertilizer? Why was I going to commit myself to at least 30 minutes every day watering those flowers? Why was I going to have to set up a complicated system of timers and tubing to water all the pots while we were out of town on vacations? Why? Because that's what I have done in mid-May for the  twenty-six years we have lived in Phoenix. No matter that I don't enjoy spending the money or putting in the effort. I have a schedule and I am following it.

That is, until, I considered the alternative: don't do it. I have the choice to not follow my routine if it no longer fulfills the purpose it once did. I could pull out the spring flowers and leave the pots empty. What a sense of freedom! I felt as if I had discovered a great, new truth: we could go all summer without mindless, purposeless work. Amazing.

The point is quite simple: often we do something one way because we have always done it that way. But, that doesn't make it the only way, even the best way.

From time to time there is tremendous value in reviewing how you live your life or what has become habitual behavior. I would not be surprised if, like me, you discover there are things you do that you really don't like to do anymore. There are ways you structure your day, or seasonal things you have always done that have become a drag on how you chose to live now.

I guess one of the signs that my mind is still functioning at a decent level is my ability to call a halt to the pointless pot planting every summer. I won't dwell on the fact that I probably haven't enjoyed it for the last decade, and instead think about what I am going to plant next fall.

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  1. Sometimes we do what we have always done because we love the routine and the ritual. But you make a good point that we might reevaluate these "rituals" to see if they still make sense and still provide the kind of comfort that we cherish.

    One of the many perks of retirement is the time and circumstances to do that kind of reassessment. Love it!

  2. Yes, Steve, we love our habits. We function well on automatic pilot. Sometimes that is a good thing, other times it is limiting.

    Regarding my plants, it took me quite a while to figure out the difference.

  3. Bob, Excellent example to make an excellent point. I think it is more than just habit. It is more like doing what you are expected to do. People of a certain status have those summer plants because it defines who you are. It doesn't have anything to do with your pleasure. It is what you are supposed to do much like our mother's advice to wear clean underwear in case of automobile accident. It is only important if it makes a difference to your daily pleasure and if it doesn't then what anybody else might think doesn't matter.

  4. Ralph,

    Proof that I occasionally follow what I write about: there are four dead lantana plants in a section of the yard that is hidden from our view most of the time. My weekend list includes replacing them.

    At breakfast this morning I turned to Betty and asked if she minded if I didn't replace them, but just ignored them this summer. Her response was a supportive, "Sure. No problem. We can't really see them anyway."

    This post just saved me money and work!

  5. "...what anybody else might think doesn't matter."

    The most important words I've ever seen Ralph comments or on his blog.

  6. @Bob,

    I'll let your judgment stand. But, if true I'm happy he wrote them here!

  7. I get bored easily (I guess that is the little kid still in me) so I am constantly seeking change. Sometimes big changes sometimes small. For instance,I have been mowing my 2+ acres for eleven years now but I seem to mow it in a different sequence/manner almost every time. ;)
    My wife on the other hand completely enjoys many of the same things she has been doing for more than 25 years now....

  8. Happy Sunday, RJ,

    Some habits are satisfying, some are not. The trick is to know the difference, I guess. By nature I like stability and predictability, which is why I do get trapped into a behavior that doesn't fit me any longer.

    By the way, I am using your Code of Conduct from your Red Letter Living blog as the inspiration for a post at the end of the week. I hope you'll visit and check it out!