In the fall , my husband and I planted a magnolia tree in the front of our house. The garden there is modest, just a narrow bed, but it faces south so the sunlight is good. And whatever we plant acts as a salutation. Our go-to gardening solution was lazy – cheap and cheerful annuals every summer. I had always wanted a magnolia tree, and this fall, for no particular reason, we invested in planting one there.
That magnolia tree is now ankle-deep in snow and ice – a skeleton of glory – and I have found myself thinking about it, anticipating what it might look like in the spring. It came with promising buds.
I love this lull of a week, after the presents have been opened, the dinner eaten, and family members have come and gone. We're on the final leeward slope of the year, looking back at the mountain of time we have traversed, and getting ready to start climbing a new one. There is quiet, and there is calm, and it is dark and many people have left the city streets for elsewhere (if only their beds or a sofa for a nap), before it all starts again.
Now is a perfect time to contemplate expectations, especially after a year that has taught us the importance of managing them.
For many people, it was a hard year because of expectations. For others, it was a terrific year because of expectations. The ascendancy of Donald Trump and the shock of Brexit delivered a lesson we all should know about the trouble of expectations. They can make us. They can break us. And both outcomes prove the power they have over our lives.
We grow up trying to fulfill the expectations of our parents, of our teachers, of our family legacy. Or, out of rebellion, we aim to defy them. Those expectations can be the fuel that drives achievement. But they can also create a sense of failure if not fulfilled. Then, layer on all those cultural scripts we often write in our own heads without even realizing we're doing it. We expect to marry. To have a family. We expect to have a great job. To own a house. To be famous. Go ahead, fill in the blank of what you expected to be and to have. I don't think very many people ever expected to be poor or lonely or ill.
There are few things more upsetting than having an expectation crushed. Ask any woman who has trouble conceiving a child. Or who suffered a miscarriage. Ask anyone who married with the expectation of everlasting love. And then divorced.
Ask anyone whose business failed, who lost a job. Or even, for that matter, someone who felt let down by the promise of Disney World. Or by a movie that a reviewer said was terrific but was not. I don't begrudge those who celebrate the political victories of Brexit and Trump.
They may have fervently hoped for those political upheavals to happen but they never thought they would. They're now basking in the glow of exceeded expectations. And so they should. You would, too, if you were in their shoes. The result came as a big surprise – like winning the lottery.
Now, their expectation is that their lives will be better, their jobs will reappear, their country will "return" to an imagined greatness.
Trump's shrewd calculation was in understanding the visceral power of expectations, the ones people held dear but which could no longer be fulfilled due to a changing economy. He stepped in like a helicopter parent spoon-feeding the children easy solutions, lest they suffer the upset of dashed expectations. Whether he can deliver on those promises is another matter, of course.
Others, meanwhile, are devastated. Rather than having no or low expectations, they were too confident that their side would prevail.
That so many experts made solemn and seemingly expert assurances that the American election and referendum in Britain wouldn't turn out the way both eventually did made it worse.
We want assurances. That's what media pundits and polls are for. That's what stock analysts are for.
Hell, that's what Santa Claus is, for kids – the promise of a desired outcome.
But anyone who has lived for a few decades or more knows this one thing for sure: Reality will almost always make a correction of expectations. And you will hear your mother's voice in your head, telling you to be happy with what you have, not what you thought you might get.
In this quiet week before the world revs up again in a new year, it is unsettling to observe the expectations on right and left, each hyperbolic in their own way.
On the one side, it's all a vision of gamboling through golden fields of prosperity. On the other, it's apocalyptic predictions of destruction. And yet we know, if we pause a moment to remember, that expectations usually cede to a different reality than the one we imagined.
What is gardening then if not the hope of some control over outcomes, some mangement of expectations? I watered the magnolia before the first frost, picked up its leaves once they had fallen, put compost around the trunk.
I believe that some modicum of the assurance we crave can come from our own actions rather than the words of so-called experts. We can protest. We can engage. That tree is an insistence of beauty at an anxious time.
Maybe there won't be perfect blossoms. Not as I imagined. But effort was made. And the hope will always be present. If not this coming spring, maybe the blossoms the following year will be better.