If we’re growing, we’re always going to be out of our comfort zone.  –John C. Maxwell

One of my housemates has healthy starts of spinach, Tatsoi, Swiss chard, and kale on our second floor balcony. The small garden beds in the yard below are being prepared with last year’s compost. The sight of such things provides a measure of stillness and gives a sense of being rooted in a place. I’m reminded of living at a different house when I first arrived at Ann Arbor two years ago. There I had dug up a 3-foot by 8-foot patch of dirt in the front yard. The peas, lettuce, spinach, collards, arugula, flowers, and a tiny struggling tomato plant, all helped in providing a similar sense of place.

I remember the pea plants were especially happy with the soil conditions, thankful for the irrigation schedule, nodding each day in approval of the morning shade that the Linden tree in the corner of the yard provided. I had to hastily build a trellis out of Maple twigs just to keep up with the fits of early growth. The little green vines seemed on a quest, branching out into the unknown, to both support and be supported by the connective structure of blossoms, pods, leaves, and stems.

It was about that same time that I had a phone conversation with a friend just starting a graduate business program on the East Coast. She and I had a lot in common at that particular moment. We were both making a second go of graduate study after leaving institutions that didn’t quite fit our needs. And both of us were experiencing a bit of uncertainty having just left comfortable careers. In the ensuing email she wrote:

It was nice to hear a friendly voice. And you are right, we are in similar situations, we are both living life’s adventure, and we will grow from it. I am a bit scared, but think that this will most assuredly help me grow as well as rediscover my path, and whether I am following it.”

Several days after installing the trellis in the garden, I noticed the vines were especially indifferent to the Maple twigs. I couldn’t figure it out as I watched them cling to each other, to the porch railing, even to the siding on the house, but not to the trellis. Was there a chemical in the Maple’s bark that the peas would not grab onto, some evolutionary strategy in Maple physiology that prevented vines from overtaking young trees?

A few mornings later I noticed one of the vines had reached far across the small garden and found the metal porch railing, and it was already aggressively pursuing this new opportunity. Upon returning for lunch later that day, the plant was now actively avoiding the same railing. What had happened? Had the plant moved away from a metal railing heated up by the midday sun? By the late afternoon it was exploiting yet another opportunity, launching new growth from a tenuous foothold at the base of one of the porch pillars. I was witnessing an adaptive engagement. Obstacles abounded, still the plant was thriving, creating, growing like gang-busters.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to equate the adaptive, obstacle-hopping demeanor I observed in a garden two years ago with what I’ve observed in the community of students and alumni that calls itself the Erb Institute. Obstacles abound, yet here is a network of connections reaching for opportunities and finding ways to lead transformative change.

There is something subtle among those connections, something rooted and reassuring, like a chorus of friendly voices. I can hear them now. They are saying, “Welcome back to the path.”