The Jigsaw Puzzle

I’m sitting in my truck up on the hill overlooking the tree farm. This is my thinking place. From here I can almost see all four corners of my little universe. The irrigation pond is down to my left. Trees stand in rows like soldiers at attention. The barns are quiet. I can hear the tractor hum in the distance.

I’m contemplating my retirement and the journey that brought me here.

Used to be that my life was about bicycles and baseball. I rode the wheels off that Western Auto spider bike. Blue. Chrome fenders and high-rise handlebars. A white banana seat with a sissy bar on back. I’d slip the wrist-strap of my baseball glove over the handlebar and ride the three miles into town looking for a back-yard-pick-up game on North Avenue. Sometimes it was Little League practice on the field at Hampton Elementary.

No one forgets the days of his childhood. My biggest responsibilities were maybe feeding a few calves, or hoeing in the garden, or mowing the grass. I had my whole life ahead of me and was completely clueless as to what that would mean.

I had no idea that I would spend some of my early years working in ministry. I had no idea that one of the kids in my youth group would shut himself up in a garage with the car running and end his own life. I had no idea that I would hold the hand of a sweet little old lady as she fought and lost her battle with cancer.

I had no idea that I would find myself caught up in a struggle between heart and mind, calling and vocation; conflicted in purpose and baffled by direction. It was one of the richest seasons of my life and one of the most challenging. It took over a decade of inner searching and several different jobs to sort it all out and put my uneasiness to rest.

My first exposure to the nursery industry came in 1983 when I took a job with a small greenhouse and landscape company in Cartersville, Georgia. The work felt right to me like I suppose mud feels to a pig. It came easy because I found it satisfied me. I liked the study it required. The work got under my fingernails and in my bones.

I did the big landscape company gig in Atlanta for a while. Driving trucks around 285 from job to job. Taking a wheelbarrow full of potting soil up an elevator to a roof-top garden above one of the downtown high-rise office buildings. Planting flower beds by headlights at 11:00 at night. Crazy fun.

In the middle of all this, Beth and I were managing a fledgling marriage. The first child came along in 1985; again in 1988 and 1990. Life was about diapers and green beans on the floor and baths and bedtime stories. Work schedules were always interrupted by doctor’s visits and school programs and dance lessons. It was a time in life when we were just plain tired and worn out.

I remember us saying, “We used to be fun.”

I turned 40 working at Callaway Gardens. One of my coworkers gave me a cake in the shape of a tombstone with black icing and a white “RIP” scripted on the front. That’s about the time I started needing bifocals, and a few years later my belt size changed for the first time since high school.

But Callaway was the place that really schooled me and prepared me for what I’m doing now. It’s where I met my business partner. That job, in many ways, is part of the reason that for the last 21 years this tree farm has become what it is.

So, I’m sitting here up on this hill taking all this into account. I’m thinking with gratitude how all the pieces of a life seem to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Separately, all the individual moments just look like odd little shapes with no place in the big picture. A job here. A house there. An agonizing struggle over here. An amazing summer trip over there.

If you look at one piece all by itself, life doesn’t make any sense. You try to figure it out and you start thinking maybe this piece got mixed in the wrong box and doesn’t even belong to this puzzle. You can’t see where it fits. You can’t force it to fit, but you know you dare not throw it away, either.

It’s like Someone Else had a complete picture in mind before he gave you all the pieces. He knows what all the pieces mean. He knows what the final picture will look like. But you and I spend a lifetime putting the pieces together having no clue how this is going to turn out.

At my age, I’m starting to see how some of the pieces fit. Even some of the pieces I’ve been carrying around for more than 40 years. It’s like a revelation. It’s like standing over a table with all the pieces spread out and looking for an hour for a place to put the one piece you’re holding in your hand, only to realize that it fits perfect right where you’ve tried it 14 times already. You just had it turned the wrong way.

I promise you I still don’t have life figured out. I’m still pretty clueless. With a thousand-piece puzzle from the Dollar Store, you at least have a picture on the front of the box that tells you what all the pieces make once put together. You can see from the start what this mess of pieces is supposed to look like.

In life, we don’t have that luxury. The final picture is hidden. All we’ve got are the pieces of our lives that have come to us over the years. Some by chance. Some by choice. All of them perhaps by Design.

As I look back over the last 55 years or so since I was playing backyard baseball on North Avenue, I am grateful for every piece of my life that has gotten me this far. In my own simpleton way of thinking, none of them are wasted. All of them fit somewhere.

If every day is one piece of the puzzle, I have managed to fit over 24,000 of them together so far. If God sees fit, I may have another 7-8,000 pieces left before I’m done. A puzzle that size scares the living daylights out of me.

But I don’t have to worry about that. I’m not in charge of the finished piece. I just gotta keep plugging in the odd shapes of my life one day at a time. I gotta believe that all the pieces will one day fit in place and make perfect sense.

I’m guessing the final picture won’t be a Rembrandt. It’ll be more like the sketch in the old Highlights magazine where you have to find the hidden cat and fork and candlestick.

This is what happens when an old guy sits and thinks.

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