What’s in your garden?
Do you know what to sow?
Is there a vision
You are fighting for?
Will you dirty your hands?
Will you kneel when you plant?
Will you tenderly care
When no one else is there?
I recently inherited a somewhat complex front garden. My initial response was curiosity, mild excitement, and a genuine albeit faint desire to care for it. I was aware that I would need help to learn about how to care for this garden, and this awareness settled in me as a sort of weight. This weight, which I felt mostly on my shoulders, was now something that I would have to learn to carry, either by becoming a gardener, or by paying someone to do the gardening for me. Nevertheless, despite my lack of knowledge and skill, not mentioning my overall ambivalence, my busy mind was already planning ways to increase the burden by making what was there better. I was facing at least two problems. The first problem was my lack of time to tend to this garden, and my second problem, already touched on, was my lack of even a basic understanding of how to care for it. For a side note, I have recently found out that besides the two problems listed above, I also seem to have weak hands. I discovered this after my last round of weeding which rendered my right hand swollen and somewhat useless for almost a week. Prior to this uncomfortable experience we had been on vacation for a month, which allowed the weeds to grow quite out of control. Somewhat whimsically, and not really possessing the right tools, I spent almost four hours pulling and cutting. Even though my hands could be a problem going forward, the pain might have been avoided if I had been more careful about not overdoing it.
I had inherited another beautiful garden, a flower garden, several years earlier and I am sorry to admit that it only took a couple of years for it to become an unrecognizable mess. To my defense, it was clear that the individual who planted and took care of the garden must have had skills that were acquired over many years, and I knew that unless I sought professional help, the garden’s demise was inevitable. Now gardeners are expensive, and one never knows who to trust. Besides, it wasn’t I who had planted these flowers, why was I suddenly expected to maintain it.
I think that part of the problem faced with any garden—when you are not a gardener—is knowing the difference between weeds and flowers. When the garden is in full bloom, this is quite easy, but in early spring flowers can be quite unrecognizable to the untrained eye. It would also seem that seeing a garden for what it really is takes a certain kind of attention in that one has to care to see. I had a dream one night of a strong and creeping weed that was taking up all the nutrients of the soil in my little garden. It looked fleshy, almost like a succulent, and it was large and snake like. This dream was quite distressing, for in my dream I hadn’t even been aware of the existence of the weed. How had I not seen it, and how had it gotten so large? It was clear that nothing else had been able to flourish around it, and I had a sense, no a realization, that it was somehow threatening or dangerous. After I woke up, I thought about how careful one would have to be with such a weed, and how hard it might be to get rid of it. Why am I dreaming of weeds?
I had another dream about some trees a few years ago. In this dream, I was in a large space that looked like a stadium, and I saw trees planted in the middle of what appeared to be a sports field. The trees were not particularly beautiful—and I was surprised to find trees in a stadium—but they were healthy and strong. They somehow represented life, and even more specifically my family, and I was overwhelmed with an excited confidence that these trees were thriving. We were the trees, and we would be alright. Mystically this grounded me in a very deep way. My life, and the life of my loved ones had meaning. We had been beautifully, tenderly, and carefully planted. Still dreaming, I ran—very fast and effortlessly I might add—down a long spiral staircase to share this wonderful news with my love, who received the news joyfully and with love in his eyes.
Let’s get back to gardens. I have to confess that I am not a big fan of flowers. There is this societal expectation that certain people (and traditionally this was women—yes, I said women) should love flowers, and that they should immediately swoon at the gesture of love they supposedly represent. But I am afraid that I am too practical for swooning and for flowers. Realistically, when you are given flowers, the gesture immediately implies the burden of work, which is a burden I distinctly feel in my heart. I am aware that the flowers cost money, and I am aware that they are given often as a grand gesture of generosity, but this just makes things worse in that it creates an uncomfortable expectation of gratitude for something I never asked for in the first place. Many years ago, I saw a documentary by Slavoj Zizec, a Slovenian philosopher, who expressed that he found flowers quite disgusting, and that they should be forbidden for children. He is not wrong. And yet in saying that I instantly question where Zizec’s head may be at in saying that—and perhaps my own. On the one hand, it might be fair to say that I have a complicated relationship with flowers. On the other, I am inconsistent in this, for my daughter has a great love for flowers, and I have always thought that this movement of her heart illustrates her health and an openness. The honeybee after all is drawn to flowers while the fly, well, it’s not flowers it is drawn to. I think what I really dislike is the cutting of flowers. There is a certain violence perpetuated on the flower when we just pluck it and put it in a vase in a house. It seems like degradation. The flower taken out of its natural environment and used for its beauty for such a short amount of time. Maybe it is shame that I feel, for humanity, for perpetuating this violence.
And then there are the weeds. There are those people who let weeds grow wild, and there is a certain kind of beauty in that. These days it could be argued that a weed garden is more sophisticated somehow; but that seems wrong as I am writing it, fashionable, but wrong. Perhaps we can call these weedgrowers purists, and perhaps it is the case that they are better at seeing beauty in the mundane. With eyes wide open they see and appreciate the intricate design of the weed, and they are undisturbed by its wild, unpredictable nature. Weed growers might be less burdened by societal standards of beauty and tradition. Could they be antiestablishment and eccentric in other ways too? Or, maybe part of it is that they like to be seen as people who care for something so seemingly insignificant.
The garden I recently inherited left me somewhat perplexed. There were aspects of the garden that I liked: for instance much like the imagined weed growers I like being seen as someone who could have and care for such a garden. But the reality is that I felt overwhelmed by the constant work the garden required, and I felt slightly panicked at my ignorance about how to best care for it. For instance, if it hadn’t been for my husband’s gardener friend, who visited one afternoon, I would have pulled flowers that appeared to be weeds, which confirmed that I would have to invest time and energy into learning. Despite my initial enthusiasm it has now been three months and I still haven’t even managed to download a plant identifier app, which I was told would guide me in knowing what to pull and what to nurture. I am not technologically inclined, and the thought of trusting or inviting yet another app into my reality seems daunting at best. But perhaps my resistance is more the result of my half-hearted initial commitment.
I really like Internal Family Systems Therapy, in that it normalizes and describes ‘being divided’ through ‘parts’ language. For the reader who might be unfamiliar with this therapy approach, put very, very crudely (and this is only one tiny aspect of the theory using my own language), imagine your life as a pie. There are many parts to you, and seemingly contradictory things can all co-exist within a person. And, it is all perfectly fine, as long as the parts are acknowledged and can co-exist in a harmonious way. There are parts of me that want to garden, that want to be seen as a gardener. These parts also want community, love, relationship, they seek meaning. Isn’t that what it is all about? Seeking and finding meaning, belonging, and love? Don’t we all want to participate in something that seems to point to something beyond the self, something that points to beauty and order?
It might strike the reader as random to associate this struggle around gardening with a desire, no, a longing for meaning, love, and connection. But this is actually not too far-fetched at all. It seems that in all the endeavours that we busy ourselves with—and this is not in any way specific or isolated to gardening—we are always in a sort of movement toward the other and toward meaning. And I am arguing that even the most unlikely of endeavors can be traced back to our desire to be in deep communion with another, or to be connected to something that transcends our small lives. Perhaps one exception to this might be the movement toward a self-inflicted death. And what really brings one to that place anyway, how traumatic does one’s experience have to have been for the drive to connect and seek meaning to transform into a drive to dis-connect in this profound way. And are we not as a society responsible when we ignore or shut our eyes to the suffering of these individuals? Wouldn’t we have to agree that this movement toward self-inflicted death would have to have been witnessed or at least sensed by other perhaps more healthy individuals? Then what is happening in our world, that we can hear the cries but not respond. Is this the result of what Terry Real and others refer to as toxic individualism?
I feel that running is a bit like gardening, and I am curious to do research on how many runners are also gardeners. As a former middle-distance runner (although this is most definitely an overstatement since my active running life came to an end decades ago) I know that each step, each stride is an act of commitment. Acceptance of the pain and commitment to the task, one foot in front of the other, the beautiful rhythm of breathing in and out just you and the road and the crisp fall air. There is also a certain surrender one engages in while running. Everything else is put on hold. A commitment of time, energy, and attention. Running, like gardening, connects me to the earth in a more intense way than what I experience when I am just going about my everyday activities. No wonder it’s good for the body, and even promotes neuroplasticity. I believe in retrospect that my strong drive to hit the pavement has always come from a good place, a part of me that intuitively understood the positive health effects that running had on my body, mind, and spirit. I love that our bodies know, they hold wisdom, we can trust our bodies. I believe that this process of knowing, when it is not disrupted by trauma, is linked to our createdness and our intimate connection to our Creator. His wisdom reflected in our desires, our needs, our actions.
Psychological flexibility is an interplay of genetics and an environment that facilitates positive developmental experiences. When conditions are good enough, we thrive. And when we thrive our nervous systems are flexible, which means that we can respond to threat in various ways, but also—and this is where the flexibility comes in—that we can shift out of states of defensive nervous system states, to connect with self, others, God, and even nature.
I realize that I have strayed significantly from weeds and gardens, but I think that the same principles touched on throughout the previous few sections apply to gardening. Returning from vacation this summer, I felt a fair amount of discomfort when I saw the state my front garden was in. All I saw was weeds, which made me think of how much money cleaning this mess would be. But when I finally took time to kneel in my little garden and to really look at what was before me, I was filled with warmth and surprised by the beauty of what I had previously judged so harshly. I also became aware that weeding the garden was not as hard as I had initially thought, and that I had once again underestimated my capacity. Part of why I was able to accept the little garden was that in all of its messiness, it was a little like me. I know this sounds like I might be losing it, but like me it needed attention, love, and care. I also realized, again—for I have had this sense before—that my work in the garden had the ability to soften my heart and to help me grow in compassion towards myself and others. Didn’t someone once say that we are all just little flowers in God’s garden? I looked it up, it was Saint Therese of Lisieux.
Fill us with your tenderness, show us how to care, how to support the fragile things, may we notice they are there …
Gardening also seems to be a little like raising kids. One must be watchful at least enough of the time, available, and attuned. It is easy to get it wrong, to miss an opportunity for eye contact, for a smile, for a soft and encouraging touch. This of course requires attention. What to focus on can be a difficult decision. I have once heard someone metaphorically describe the various distractions we face as shiny ornaments that hang on strings. The distractions are normal, we can be aware of them, but we must not let the shiny things take hold of us completely. I am not sure many people have a focus or something they are moving towards. I know I lose sight all the time. When we live our lives on automatic pilot it is easy to lose sight, especially with all the shiny objects constantly vying for our attention. I don’t even mean a focus like education or becoming a good cook or gardener. I think that in some ways those too are shiny things that must be held lightly. So, I guess I am talking about the deeper questions of purpose and meaning. When we get to the end of our lives what did we do with our talents, our time, our energy? With whom or for whom did we do things and to what end? When it comes to living life well, people are always worth our attention, our focused attention, our care-full attention. In raising kids, to look beyond the behaviour and to see what lies beneath requires presence, compassion, which are qualities that could be summed up by the word love. I like the Circle of Security Intervention’s call to parents, to be ‘bigger, wiser, stronger, kind,’ as it describes a helpful relational stance for those of us who might not have learned relating in this way in our families of origin.
Is gardening worth my time? I think that in everything that we do we can learn deeper lessons about ourselves, the world, even God. And I would say that it is never a mistake to participate in beauty, to work with one’s hands and to tend to creation. People have such a problem with the idea that biblically humans were given dominion over creation. I am not sure why the assumption is that this implies violence. And although I am annoyed at this, and I feel this in my head and my heart, I get it. I see the violence that has been perpetrated. But that does not mean that the order of the universe is in some way flawed. Instead, I think that it illustrates that the human heart has become darkened, and that we have lost our ability—at least collectively—to fulfill our peaceful calling. I guess I am a pacifist, although given the right set of circumstances … who knows.
Ultimately, I think it all boils down to this desire, this passion for power that always gets us in trouble. It is beyond my capacity to comprehend the amount of violence I participate in daily. And to go through life in somewhat of a balanced way, I numb myself, I forget, I do not focus on this overarching system of injustice that I am a part of. But isn’t the problem that we don’t really talk about the things that we feel we have no power over? What would happen if we just stopped and really repented. The trouble is that although we might repent, how do we move forward without repeating the same atrocities over, and over again. I apologize, I am struck by how heavy this is.
It seems to be the case that we are much more comfortable with things that are light, with not focusing on our harmful practices. But where does it end, or how does it end for the generations that come after us? What about creation? Should Christianity be much more radical in its teachings about the stewardship of creation? Actually, I think the Christian message is radical enough with its call for humility and love. But why do we seem to have lost these foundational concepts? Maybe it is because some of us still believe that we will float up into space one day and leave the big bad created world behind. I guess with that lens, why should we bother caring for anything here on earth.
I love waking up early in the morning. It is the best time to write. Everyone is asleep, and it is dark outside. Solitude. It is amazing how one can find it in the middle of city life. I think that is also what I love about gardening. Even when you are pulling weeds or planting with someone, there is a quiet, a connection with the earth, it feels almost sacred. I am always stuck by the fragility of many of the flowers. They bloom and then fade so quickly. I am struck this morning by my own finitude. Despite my faith in God, there is something disquieting about the fact that like a flower I will fade away. It must not be much easier when you are older. What has struck me most about aging is that I hardly ever feel my chronological age. Sometimes I hear of people who are ready to die and who are frustrated because they feel too old to be alive. They are genuinely done with life in their bodies. It sounds kind of ideal to me, and yet I suspect I might be idealizing this end-of-life stance.
I had an experience two years ago that I still find somewhat perplexing. After having major surgery, I experienced a complication, an internal bleed, which almost killed me. Several blood transfusions saved my life which left me feeling truly amazed and somewhat in awe of modern medicine. Modern medicine really seems miraculous when you need a life-saving intervention. I think what I find perplexing looking back is my own transition of being fine one minute, and then in the next minute quite painlessly—except for all the fainting and seeming inability to breathe at times—almost bleeding to death. I was so aware that my life was slipping away. And yet, I had no profound feelings or thoughts. Nothing. I was just in the moment watching the paramedics, the doctors, as I slipped in and out of consciousness. I remember wondering if they thought I was dying. But I felt calm. It felt very serious, but strangely all the frenetic energy that I imagine would accompany dying was absent. It felt sort of like a cool and serious awareness that things might be over. That’s it. Nothing more romantic, nothing more heartfelt, no thoughts about God at all. And I was struck by how seamlessly all this was happening. We fade away. Lights and doctors one minute followed by nothing. My husband talking to someone and then again nothing. I am aware that I could have stayed in the nothing; and I think it is the experience of the nothing—which was not an experience at all—that I found so perplexing in retrospect. And when I had received adequate amounts of blood and I was recovering, the feeling of nothing, of nothingness, still seemed to linger. I had come face to face with my mortality, the ease with which I could lose my life at any time. My heart and my mind felt cold, stiff, almost as if frozen. I guess it was traumatic, and yet traumatic in an unexpected and calm way.