Sharing the Secret to the Garden

I wrote a poem titled, “The Secret to the Garden”, in my first semester at Messiah College. When I wrote it, I was learning two lessons that would be very influential to my life and my writing: one, how to write poetry in certain forms,two, and how to be more selfless with my time. Before moving to Pennsylvania for college, I had mostly written free verse poetry, and I was homeschooled and dual-enrolled in college classes before Messiah. I did volunteer a lot at church, but my schedule was usually flexible enough, it usually was not a difficult sacrifice to volunteer my time there. I had a handful of close friends in Sarasota, that it was always a pleasure to spend time with.
When I first started at Messiah, I didn’t know anybody. I made a bunch of acquaintances quickly, from my orientation group and in my English classes, but it would be a while before I made close friends there. Two of my classes that semester were Formal Poetry and Created and Called for Community. In CCC we studied short stories and essays that were meant to give us a foundation as Christian scholars. My favorite story, and the one that was most influential to my life, was J.R. Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle”.
It is a very simple yet powerful short story about an odd man named Niggle who is a painter. He loves painting and is very invested in his most impressive work, a tree with intricate leaves and a landscape behind it. However, he has very needy neighbors, and he is just too sweet of a person to tell them “no” to helping them or having a cup of tea. The problem is, Niggle would always rather be painting, so he does all his service work and time spent with his neighbors very begrudgingly.
Before long, Niggle is required to leave on a journey which he will not return from. He never finishes his painting. On his journey, Niggle learns how to be diligent in his work, whether he enjoys it or not, and how to be truly selfless and caring towards those around him. After learning these lessons, he is rewarded in an amazing way. It is a story that any creator, such a writer, painter, musician, or artist understands and relates to very deeply. It perfectly captures the struggle between balancing creative work, and, in being a Christian creator, how do you balance your time spent in that creative work with your time spent loving and serving others around you. The temptation may be, “Oh, but this project will help and bless so many people when it’s done! So I can pass up some chances to see or even help people to work on it”. “Leaf by Niggle” presents the hard and true reality to creators that we are not ever promised another day, or that we will be able to finish that project, but people are valuable and people are eternal.
I related to Niggle a lot when I was first in college. I loved my class work, especially when it was creative writing. I did want to make new friends, but being naturally introverted, I would often prefer to go back to my dorm and work on my personal or class-assigned writing than try to get to know a group of people who were, to me, practically strangers. When I did spend time with new people and went to group events, I enjoyed it, but I often had an itching, a longing to go work on my writing instead. That was until we read and discussed “Leaf by Niggle” in CCC class. After studying the story, I saw how much I was like Niggle, and resolved I was going to be more selfless with my time, and do it with a cheerful heart.
It really made a difference from the first semester on. I met and got to know so many people, and though I was ridiculously busy most of my college career, I had so many experiences I would have never had as a writing hermit in my dorm. The first real test I had in living this out was when I went to write “The Secret to the Garden”. We learned and studied the last form of poetry for the semester before we switched to revising. This last form was called a sestina. It was the most involved and most time-consuming form we had learned all semester. The week it was due, I was really busy with classes and extracurricular activities. In addition to all that, other class work, and this poetry assignment, I had plenty of friends who wanted to meet up and my family wanting me to see them. It was very tempting to tell the friends and family I was just too busy to see them at all that week, but I balanced it as best I could.
This looked like having dinner with friends at the dining hall, and not rushing them to finish, and then going on a walk by the creek with them. After that, when they asked me to come play pool at the student union, at that point I told them I would love to, but I had assignments I needed to finish. I did not spend all weekend with my family, but still saw them for what time I could.
By 11:59p.m. Sunday night, I submitted my poem, “The Secret to the Garden” to my professor through Canvas. It originally was a free verse poem I had written in one of my old notebooks, talking about how spiritually nourishing my devotion times spent with God were. In the revision, and making it into a sestina, I made it into an allegory about what I had been learning recently. It became an allegory telling that a Christian has to share and not hoard their faith, but also that creators have to share themselves, not just shack up with their work and never interact with the world.
Just before I graduated from Messiah in December of 2019, the English department held a simple reception for the five or six seniors graduating from the English department. At the reception, the head of the English Department gave a short commemorative speech for each senior. The speech she gave for me was a great summary of the long-term result of that resolution I made in my first semester. This is a short paraphrase of what she said, “Stephen, even though you transferred to Messiah and were only here for two years rather than four, the English faculty and I feel as though we know you just as well as those students we have had for four years. And in wondering why that is, I realized it was because you were always present. Whenever the English department hosted an event, you were there. After a semester, I always counted on you being at the events we had, and sure enough, you were. And I’m sure it was not just in regard to the English department, but I’m sure you were present and made yourself available to others across campus. You made such an impact in the English department and on campus, because you took the time to always be present and involved.”
She was not saying I just showed up and it got participation points. I made the effort to participate and give of my time even when it was not easy. I had multiple friends saying similar things as I neared graduation, like “Stephen, how do you know most of the campus, and you’ve only been here two years?”, and “Wow, you’re graduating already? I know a lot of people here are going to miss you.”
It was not until that speech did I realize that resolution, to give of my time selflessly and with a cheerful heart, was what made the difference. I made it to just about every recital or performance I was invited to. I tried out the Asian club’s events and had dinner a few times with the sign language club. I went to Bible studies, choir practice, and hip-pop dance practice just about every week they had it. The result was, more people on campus knew me than I knew them. It was a satisfying way to leave, knowing I had made a difference, and I was going to need those skills more in moving back in with my family after college and in becoming a teacher.
I make this post and share this story not to boast, but to share a lesson God taught me. I’m grateful He did, and hopefully as I share this now, it’s a lesson someone else needed to hear and begin to learn. If you haven’t yet, order your copy of A Man’s Shield and Fortress in order to read “The Secret to the Garden”. I’ve also included a link to J.R. Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle” below. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It is ten loaded pages, but very worth your time. So, in conclusion, invest in the lives of other people. People and their souls last for eternity, and what we do to point them to Christ and bless their lives earns us treasure in heaven and brings glory to God.

“Leaf by Niggle”:

2 thoughts on “Sharing the Secret to the Garden

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  1. Stephen,

    I knew your dad awhile back but also had a couple interactions with you at CC.

    Congrats on the poetry publication! I too enjoy reading poetry but can be very selective of what I take time to read…are all the poems in “A Man’s Shield and Fortress” originals?


    Liked by 1 person

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