Best Laid Plans
The concept of “best laid plans” has been on my mind lately. The phrase comes from a poem written by Robert Burns. In my high school teaching days, his poem “To a Mouse” always made my lesson plan playlist. Burns was a regular guy, a farmer, and he became Scotland’s most treasured and celebrated poet. Everyday people finding creative success always inspire me… wonder why.
To a Mouse (On Turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785)
Small, crafty, cowering, timorous little beast,
O, what a panic is in your little breast! You need not start away so hasty With argumentative chatter!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.
I'm truly sorry man's dominion Has broken Nature's social union, And justifies that ill opinion Which makes you startle At me, your poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!
I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor little beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.
Your small house, too, in ruin! Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one, Of coarse grass green! And bleak December's winds coming,
Both bitter and keen!
You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
And weary winter coming fast, And cozy here, beneath the blast, You thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel plough passed
Out through your cell.
That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble! Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter's sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.
But little Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be vain: The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry, And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you: But oh! I backward cast my eye, On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!
John Steinbeck pulled the title Of Mice and Men from this work—the perfect allusion for the story of George and Lennie, as Lennie is the mouse—powerless against the world—and George is the regretful narrator—unable to protect him. It’s an excellent (and short) book that everyone should read. It also reminds me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The “monster” Victor Frankenstein created resembled Lennie in size and situation. The “monster” could never assimilate into the world he was resurrected to; even his creator rejected him.
These two characters never stood a chance.
But I digress… perhaps I should’ve started this blog with a warning: Nerd Alert.
Whenever things don’t go as planned, I think of the poem. "The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley.” That’s Scottish for “go often awry.” That sums up many things for me lately.
Like my garden…
Maybe my green thumb is more yellow because we’ve suffered some setbacks.
First, my gorgeous and hopeful cucumber plant. It once looked like this…
And now, it’s this…
Our only successful cucumber turned out watery. We learned that when they turn light green, they’re getting too much water. That made sense given all the rain we had for a few weeks. But after we corrected that problem, pests took notice of the budding cucumbers, and the plant dried up no matter how rigorously we cared for it. Our best laid cucumber plans have definitely gone awry.
I don’t feel too bad, though… Robert Burns struggled with his crops all the time (maybe because he kept stopping the plough to poeticize field mice). I’m in good company.
Another thing… critters. Not mice, thank goodness. But ants, bunnies, and, well, mysterious garden demons.
For the ants, we tried the advice of the ol’ guy down the street. Spraying a concoction of ivory soap and water on the dirt and perimeter. It’s already helped keep ants away. They’re destructive buggers, given their size.
For bigger predators, like the cute bunnies munching on my sweet potato plants, and whatever “crafty, cowering, timorous little beast” did this...
We bordered the garden with cinnamon. We’ve had no recurrences, yet. But we’re reapplying both techniques every few days.
It’s an ongoing struggle—making our best laid plans go our way.
But other plants are tanking for mysterious reasons. Perhaps over too much water during those weeks of everyday deluges. I don’t see my butter baby or yellow squash making miraculous comebacks. And I wonder if our compost surprises will ever produce anything, as flowers appear, teasing us, and then fall off or wither way for no apparent reason.
Gardening is a flighty friend.
Ugh, a squirrel is presently molesting my peach tree. In broad daylight!
Garden woes aren’t the only thing causing Burns’ “best laid plans” to circle my mind. I haven’t blogged about it yet, but in May I set goals for the entire year, and those have come under a similar attack (though not by squirrels or ants).
I am an online test scorer, part-time project-based work that comes periodically and lasts a few weeks. It’s the perfect side-gig for my writing life—making extra money on my schedule. But the pandemic knocked my 8-10 projects per year down to 1-3. So, when the company offered a full-time project, I jumped at it, even though it meant a 4-week upheaval. 40 hours a week instead of my usual 20. And a set schedule—9:00-5:30 with two 15-minute breaks and 30-minutes for lunch, all rigorously monitored. Even short step-aways had to be reported in our all-day Teams meeting; BRB followed moments later with BACK. It felt like I was a first grader, taking the pass to go to the bathroom. Geez.
This strict routine ploughed over my best-laid goal plans. Though an awesome project I was happy to get, it required major adjustments to my writing, reading, and blogging goals. I had to blog in advance and on weekends to keep my once-a-week promise, even when I didn’t feel like it. I split my work out because my half-hour lunch wasn’t enough. Pleasure reading pushed aside for my bigger priority—editing my novel so I can submit it to agents this month. And Joe and Abby stepped up with meals and chores just to keep me at my desk.
Whether with our garden or my goals, I’m always working around obstacles that hinder success because, unlike the wee mouse, I consider the past, present, and future. The past teaches that, yes, things go awry. The present reveals the problem. And the future offers hope of overcoming it and getting to the good stuff… ripe tomatoes, perfect cucumbers, and many bestselling novels.
The line should be…
The best laid plans of mice and men go often awry and then we set them straight again.
Or something like that… I’m no poet.
Setting plans straight again requires understanding and flexibility. I know why I got off-track. Good things came from it. But now, it’s time to reset, resume my schedule, and plough through my existing projects. Maybe with a more rigorous schedule and built-in breaks, since I’ve gotten used to it. Hmm.
Share your (awry) plans below or your gardening advice. I’ll also accept poetry. Or random Robert Burns facts. I remember reading that he was called "The Poetical Plough-boy." If that's not a rap name, it should be.