What Happens When you Say No to Good Things?

With the summer heat comes a bumper crop of plant-based Instagram posts. In the pictures, overall-clad women lower starter pots into raised garden beds constructed by their bearded husbands. Hand-lettered labels on stakes clarify what each leafy green thing will become; most are vegetables I didn’t even know about in the ‘90s.

And as everyone raises their green thumb into the air, I ache for a version of myself that gardens. I should garden. Gardening is a good thing.

In my horticulture dreams, I walk barefoot in the cool dirt each morning gathering raspberries to preserve in mason jars. I wear a wide brimmed hat, and it even stays on, because in my fantasy, I have a good head for hats. Each night, I tie a calico apron around my waist and hold up its edges to carry the greens for our dinner salad.

Yet again, I won’t be gardening this year. Somehow, like my sewing projects, house cleaning, leg shaving, and photo-book making, it doesn’t happen. Not even close. Not even a potted basil plant from the grocery store. I wonder, like many of us do, how the women in my life have it all together…

In these moments where all the good things I could and should be doing start to swirl around my head, I recite a simple line from the Shauna Niequist book Bittersweet:

“I don’t garden.”

In this section of her book, Shauna lists off good things she has said no to, righteous and beautiful endeavors that easily distract from the things that make up her calling and purpose in life. This is a countercultural attitude; I often think to succeed I must do all the good things—better, faster, stronger, more, more, more, more…

When looking at our lives and the detritus of our unfinished projects, we look at ourselves and say, “What’s the matter with you?” Not what’s the matter with my priorities or what’s the matter with unreasonable pressure on social media, or what’s the matter with societal definitions of success.

I think of my own mama who always felt ashamed of our messy house. We lived in a neighborhood of pristine homes with rooms dreamed up by interior designers. On the rare occasions we did have guests over, we recited rehearsed apologies about the clutter.

We knew that despite last minute efforts to move everything into the laundry room and bedrooms, we still didn’t pass the inspection of the neat freaks. Each of us girls had moments of anger or embarrassment that we didn’t have a tidy home, but when I look back at my mom’s time, there was not a second that wasn’t accounted for. She rarely relaxed or had time for herself. In lieu of house beautiful, she had chosen other good things.

While our expectations from self and others can quickly get blown out of proportion, we need to remember that we live our life within some limits we can’t get around: Twenty four hours in a day, seven days in a week. We have base requirements for staying alive like sleeping, eating, pooping. As a mom, I see it now more than ever. Time is finite, but we try to live in a false reality where we have time for it all. We gather the pieces of a good life from a variety of Instagram feeds and build up a non-existent ideal.

But guess what… that woman who cooks homemade bread every week may not have a part-time job outside the home. Your friend who gardens may not have a colicky baby. Your friend who has the most amazing clothes has to make financial sacrifice in another area.

Your resources go to places and priorities. It’s something you can actually chart. Tanya Dalton of Inkwell Press suggests taking stock of what you do in an average day. I’m sure you might find a nap in there or possibly a thirty minute break to stalk people from college on Facebook, but the majority of your day is spoken for by other good things.

You will not become perfect by cutting out that nap or time relaxing with a glass of wine. Not only is perfection not within our grasp, transformation comes from saying no to the things eating much larger portions of our time. If I want more space for horticulture, my husband and I will need to have hard conversations about our lifestyle and family mission. Yes, you can get up fifteen minutes earlier and add some meditation time in, you can find time in the margins to work out, and institute new routines and habits that will aid wholeness, but you may not have time to garden.

I know I don’t. When I take a look at what I am doing, I simply don’t have time for radishes and kale produced in my backyard. That doesn’t mean I don’t share ideals and views with those who have chosen to garden, and it doesn’t mean I never will rototill an oversized pumpkin patch in my backyard. But for now, I am prioritizing my writing, my mental health, and my fitness among other things. Gardening isn’t the only thing thrown to the wayside. Often, I compromise a clean home and, at all times, I compromise blow-dried hair.

So take note this week. What do you do all day? I think you’ll find you do a lot. Try cheering yourself on for each little thing you finish, so your brain registers even the mundane tasks. Perhaps you will find you are giving a ton of time to something you don’t want to. Perhaps you will find that you need to quit a committee to make room for some rutabagas. But more often than not, you’ve simply chosen other things, and Mama, that’s ok.

So what happens when you say no to good things? Most of the time, other good things.