I can’t tell you when I became a man. At times, I still don’t know if I am. It has little to do with age, I clearly remember my father at forty-three and I’m childish by comparison. Manhood doesn’t hinge on the doors of accomplishment or material gain. The world is replete with well-to-do juveniles. Nor is manhood dependent upon the sacraments of marriage or fatherhood; I’ve amassed enough foolish experiences as a divorced father to repudiate such beliefs.
In some cultures this decision is made for them; holding rites of passage, like journal entries, to announce a boy’s entrance into manhood. But the west isn’t one of them. It’s just expected that American boys will know when it’s time to become a man.
My grandfather was recognized far and wide for his gardening acumen. In the average growing season he could produce four times the crop on the same plot of dirt. He was diligent and methodical in what he did. The staples of every southern palate, corn, tomatoes, beans, and potatoes were planted first. They required an abundance of time and sunlight to reach full blossom. The indulgences, strawberries and sunflowers, followed depending on available space. Then, like any master gardener the bulk of his spare toil was spent at the art of pruning – clipping, hoeing, thinning out and cutting back to safeguard against the pole bean strangling the bell peppers or blackberry bushes overtaking the cabbage.
F.W. Boreham once said that a man’s life is like a garden and as such it must be treated similarly. Boys start out life planting pansies; those sentimental flowers of youth colored in dream and wonder. But as the boy matures, as the responsibilities of age and position begin having their way, vegetables, characterizing the blandness of maturity, groan out for idle soil- some things must go – there is a limit to how much will grow in his garden.
One of the characteristics I love most about my nine-year-old son is his passion. His energy is as spontaneous as it is contagious. There seems no limit into the things he will immerse himself in. It’s one of his many traits I most wish to cultivate. A boy needs rich abundant soil to nurture his obsessions – his pansies – to embrace his childhood passions while they remain harmless and untainted.
My father didn’t have the childhood he wanted. He had a love of basketball and rumor had it he was quite good at the game. High school was his first chance to play for an organized team, but my grandfather wouldn’t sign off. Afternoon practices interfered with afternoon chores and livestock and hayfields pay no heed to one’s dreams.
It must surely have been a great disappointment, wounding his soul deeper than he admitted to others or himself. It’s a hurt he carried all of his life. My father was not a man to rollick in childish games. He bore a fidelity to responsibility and constraint that betrayed his years. He was considered an ‘old soul’. He dressed old, acted old, and his best friends were old. I must wonder how different it might have been had my grandfather allowed him to plant a few of the pansies and buttercups in his dreams instead of compelling the teen to scatter his garden with the okra and peas of adulthood?
It is important understand that care and attention should also be paid else I harm my son no less severely than my grandfather did his. I must remain diligent that my boy doesn’t plant his whole garden with those pansies; where row upon row are seeded with the perennials of adolescence. If he packs his garden from end to end, like sardines in a tin, with impassioned daffodils how will he ever possess the firmness of character when it comes time to prune the fiery marigold and make way for the mundane lima bean?
Because the truth is, it will be in those pivotal moments that my son must decide to become a man.
Manhood is a thinning-out process; an awareness that many of the sentimental pansies of youth must be pulled to make room for the vapid potatoes and turnips of manhood. It is a sign of the authentic man who willingly, and often remorsefully, chooses to dig up the viola planted in younger days because his garden has become overcrowded and he needs the soil for those lowly turnips that help sustain a life comprised of wife and children, mortgages and 401k’s.
The truest measure of a man is in knowing what, when, and how much to prune that will ultimately produce the most bountiful crop. Do away with all the pansies and life becomes dry and humdrum; cut too deep into the corn or carrots and he suffers the fate of countless other ‘men’ whose gardens remain overflowing with the narcissistic and shiftless blooms of boyhood.
A man’s garden requires pruning, a methodical and diligent act that takes a lifetime. But it’s in that one moment, when the boy first looks out over his garden bursting with the vibrant pansies and orchids of adolescence – and he accepts some of them must go – that he will finally become a man.