Overgrowth: the Story of a Big Marigold

My garden has been growing unchecked for at least a month while I tended to less earthy pursuits. Gardening always takes me by surprise. My plants seem so well-behaved, growing silently in their places, that every once and a while I stop, take a closer look, and am surprised to find that enormous clover have sprung up right in the middle, or some of my plants are taking away the precious space of others. This last problem is what I found yesterday.

This spring, I bought a flat of tiger-eye marigolds. Most of them were identical, except for one or two plants with slightly different shades. I planted them all in a row anyway, intending them to have equal space. I didn’t realize that the slightly different marigolds would be stronger, more demanding. As I perused the state of affairs in Marigold Row yesterday afternoon, I finally got to grips with the fact that one of my marigolds had totally overgrown its space and was seriously infringing on the territory of others.

The marigolds adjacent to their enormous sibling had yielded their space, but they hadn’t given up entirely. They were blooming with all the ferocity their stalks could muster. They were seeking out the sun wherever they could: their curved stalks crawled along the ground until they were out of the Big Marigold’s shadow, then shot upward with optimistic blooms.

I was used to seeing flowers wrap themselves around obstacles, but yesterday I noticed something that I’d never seen before.

Other marigolds tried to bloom right next to the big one, but their buds had rotted on the stalk, never opening. They couldn’t reach as tall as the big one could, and their persistent efforts to bloom died in the shadows. Perhaps one might say they were caught under the Big Marigold’s “umbrella of authority”?

 

If I might, for a moment, borrow Jesus’ sandals, I’ll tell you a story of a garden where children grow. They all began with equal space in the garden. All of them were to bloom together in harmony, with equal access to the sun and rain. Their gardener spaced them carefully so that they wouldn’t compete with each other; they all had everything they needed.

Then some of them began to overgrow.

The Big Marigold started out just like all the other marigolds: nourished at my hand and sheltered in the flowerbed. Plump with enthusiasm for the warmth of the sun and nourishment of the rain, he grew rapidly. Soon he began to eclipse the others, reaching closer and closer to the sun. The taller he got, the more sure he became that the sun was meant for him. Since he was so tall, maybe I had meant for him to be an authority in the garden. Surely I had meant to nourish him, let him grow large, and let his shadow protect the other flowers from the wind.

The Big Marigold was beautiful. He offered me more than twenty blooms and just as many fresh new buds. But he couldn’t see that he was killing the others.

The other marigolds tried to accommodate him. Maybe they agreed that, since he was the strongest, he should be the center of the garden. Maybe they thought I cared for him more, and maybe they wished that they were a different kind of marigold, a kind that grew larger than they did.

My other marigolds tried hard to please me, despite their difficulties. Some crawled along the dirt to escape the Big Marigold’s shadow and then lifted their blooms to me in thanks. But they exhausted themselves by crawling so far from their roots, and some of them were attacked by bugs and buffeted by winds. Their long stalks made them vulnerable.

Other flowers tried to bloom right next to the Big Marigold, complementing him. But as the Big Marigold soaked in the sun, they languished in his shadow. The buds they tried so hard to send up to me died on the vine, and it was all they could do just to stay alive.


I love the Big Marigold. He’s one of the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever grown. But I love my other flowers, too, and one plant doesn’t make a garden. So I had to cut him back.

Cutting is hard. My Big Marigold lost all his blooms and most of his bulk. He’s probably very, very unhappy with me right now. “Wasn’t I special?” he might yell, if he could talk. “I thought that I was the head of this flowerbed, the spiritual leader of the other marigolds!” My foolish marigold didn’t realize that he was actually destroying my garden with his overgrowth.

I gently took the rotten buds off the tops of the strained, smaller marigolds. When I trimmed back the Big Marigold’s girth, I even discovered a long-lost marigold I hadn’t seen for weeks. I had nearly forgotten she was even there! This morning, the dawning sun warmed her for the first time since she was a new shoot. I think she’ll bounce back just fine in a few days.

 

My point here should be obvious. Patriarchal Christianity is like  an overgrowth in the world’s garden. Patriarchal husbands, fathers and pastors are like my Big Marigold: they believe that they are supposed to be the focal points in the garden, that they should be bigger than all the other flowers, that they should have more of the sun and rain and that their great size protects the other flowers from the wind and bugs.

But no marigold is meant to protect another. When a patriarch grows tall and overshadows his wife or daughter, he harms her. He stifles her natural ability to grow, to fight off bugs and to soak up the sun. His shade causes her budding thoughts to die and rot before they ever bloom – and who knows how beautiful those thoughts might have been if they’d been given their space?

My smaller marigolds are not weaklings. They found all sorts of ways to persist, whether by investing their energies to sending up buds over and over again despite knowing that they’d be stifled, or by creeping just far enough away into some acceptable space to use their talents. But they shouldn’t have had to work so hard. The space the Big Marigold took was theirs by right: I had given them that space when I planted them.

 

This analogy isn’t perfect: I am probably a lazier gardener than Jesus would be if he were deeply invested in planting marigolds. But here is the major difference, as I see it:

I pruned the Big Marigold. But in life, we are the ones who must prune ourselves. Patriarchal Christianity teaches women to constantly make room, to check themselves and see if they are being domineering (having a “Jezebel spirit”), because patriarchal Christianity recognizes that domineering wives hurt their husbands. What the patriarchs don’t see is that domineering men hurt women, too. They choke their sisters with their overgrowth.

Every person on earth has a responsibility to look critically at his or her own behavior. I am the one responsible for seeing which parts of myself might be overgrown. I am the one who must try to make space for others, whether that means expressing my opinions less frequently to give space to my partner or letting others decide things that I might feel strongly about. That responsibility is not gendered: it belongs to everyone.

Pruning oneself of bad habits and attitudes is very painful. Marigolds might have an advantage over us in that regard. They seem to bounce back better after a cutting. But there’s another commonality: when you cut a marigold, it spends some time regrouping before it tries to bloom again. It’s okay to take some quiet time to process the pruning, to become comfortable in a state of humility.

We are part of a field of marigolds: none of us are meant to flock around a centerpiece, but we’re also not meant to make ourselves into a centerpiece, either. Male or female.

Marigold, prune thyself! That all may be healthy.

  • Kristen

    Amazing writing. Very moving. The story tells it better than a thousand sermons.

  • Arthur

    Lovely parable!

  • Sonnet

    beautiful. great insights.


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