Pete Hlabse discusses the spiritual importance of taking care of your own backyard

Chalk it up to the sweat dripping off my face or the dirt crusted under my fingernails, but at that moment, I had enough. The thought furthest from my heart and mind was that this was a good for me.  But when she spoke those words, it made all the sense in the world.  

Summers in South Bend – for as much as they are to be welcomed after polar vortexes and miniature (though consistent) pea-soupers – also bring about their more penitential periods, or so has become the case in my life.  The time and place in which Providence has set me, in chill and in warmth, has reminded me that these seasons – and all that comes with them – are to be goods for me. But, as is the case with ‘goods’ in their most proper sense, they don’t always feel good (and perhaps shouldn’t feel good).

I’ll try to set the scene. I wake up on a Saturday sometime between June and September.  I have my coffee and small breakfast, take a look out the back, front, and side windows, and see a lawn that desperately needs some care.  I cast a look over to my wife – a fellow ND graduate – waiting for her to say “don’t worry about it today” or “save it for tomorrow.” No such luck this time around.

So, I grab the batteries for the lawn mower, edger, and backpack blower (what self-respecting millennial wouldn’t have battery-operated lawn equipment?), and head out to the back to get started. I pop in my ear buds and put on some music to accompany me on the push.

Call it 11:00am by the time I get started with the first few runs in the backyard.  I take some delight in seeing the clean lines and shorter grass appear from underneath the mower.  Push north, push south. Mow and edge around the mulch beds. Blow the scraps away from the house. Rinse. Repeat.

Fast-forward several hours later.  My trusty batteries have run-out, been re-charged, and have run-out again.  At least there is a LaCroix in the fridge for this millennial’s well-earned break.  I see Beth in the garden weeding around the eggplant, tomatoes, and struggling peppers.  She rightly points out a piece of our home’s wood siding that is rotting and needs to be replaced soon. Onward.

I pause, looking out at the other half of the lawn that need be tended, and the thought occurs, “Do other twenty-something-year-olds spend their time this way? Shouldn’t we be kayaking, cycling, camping, or doing something more active and creative and less homely and domesticated?  Is this what ‘man, fully alive’ looks like for a couple in their twenties?  Couldn’t I spend this time finally capitalizing on my rush to grad school immediately after graduating from Notre Dame as an undergrad in 2011, and now work part-time toward a Ph.D. in order to help build my curriculum vitae?  Shouldn’t I be networking right now, or building a personal digital brand?” Notre Dame grads are to be high-achievers and difference makers, so I’m told.

Nota bene: To those who can tend to your homes, families, and also find time for kayaking and working toward a Ph.D. — more power to you!  The Lord has blessed you with a unique gift to bring about His kingdom.

It’s around 2:00pm, and after a short break I put my head down and do my best to power through the afternoon heat (the quote ‘put my head down and power through’ makes me think of its use in Arrested Development, a helpful moment of levity).  I catch a glimpse of my older neighbor (in his fifties, at least) treading the same penitential path I am walking. We share a smile, wave, and a raise of the eyebrows. Somehow we know what the other is feeling.  I wonder if he asked the same questions of himself that I had just posed to myself when he was my age. I hypothesize his answers and project them as my own:

“How insufficiently did I anticipate the time and energy a home would require of my wife and me!  In my worst moments, I let my mind wander about what else I could have done with all the time that has been, is, and will be taken up in mowing and weeding, diagnosing and patching, and planting and watering.  What about that Ph.D.? What about the activity that otherwise might have become a favorite hobby and talent? What about the time that could have been used to bring about a social change more impactful and measurable than a crop of eggplant? What about that friendship that was not made and deepened? And the big one: Am I – are we – really being and becoming our best selves spending our Saturdays (and more) maintaining a half-acre plot of land in South Bend, Indiana?”

I get to the side-yard, which feels to me like the last leg in a 3,000 metre steeplechase.  A reward along the way is seeing what I have already completed and recalling where the sun was in the sky when I mowed those parts of the yard.  The final pushes are done, the edges of the mulch beds are set straight, and the backpack blower has leveled out the lumps of grass clippings and leaves across the lawn.  Exhale.

It’s after 5:00pm, and I’ve had enough of home-ownership for the day.  The lawn-equipment is put away and I enter the front door. Beth has cleaned up after weeding the yard’s numerous mulch beds, trimming the hydrangeas, and watering our vegetables.  She already has something cooking for dinner on the stove. I walk into the kitchen and the way she looks at me makes me feel as though I am Aragorn pushing open the gates to Theoden’s holding at Helm’s Deep.  I don’t feel that cool, though.

“You know, Pete, we’re made to take care of things.”  

She was, and is, right.  In her charity, no mention of the dirt I was tracking into the kitchen from my socks. Call it the grace of the Sacrament of marriage, but what she spoke, how she spoke, and why she spoke dissolved my crusty interior (and exterior) and reminded me of that relationship to which the Lord truly calls.

Beth and I are no doubt products of a measurably privileged background – from the education afforded to us by our families to our professional opportunities, and not least of all in the stability of the roof over our head and the grass under our feet.  Some might even say based on where we come from and the resources at our disposal, that we have underachieved in “making a difference in the world” – an ethos in which so many high-achieving students with a moral compass, at Notre Dame and elsewhere, find inspiration.

But, Thérèse’s “little way” looms large in our discernment of the way in which the Lord has brought and asks to bring about His Providence through and around us – how He asks us to receive and steward the reality He has placed in front of us, despite the constellation of possibilities presented elsewhere.  In that spirit, and amidst a community and culture that values success, social change, mobility, and “making a difference” – Saturday afternoons spent in the yard between June and September in South Bend, Indiana might indeed be the way in which we are reminded not only that ‘we’re made to take care of things,’ but also that we’re made to be taken care of.

Pete Hlabse is the Student Program Manager at the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture.  Pete and Beth invite you over to their home for yard-work and/or dinner (