I am a gardener and garden. I think we all are, in one way or another.
I suppose the first thing that attracted me to gardening was the chance to spend time outside with my beloved father. And then, when he helped me design my first little plot of land, clear and border it with rocks, and visit a local nursery to buy whatever seeds I wanted, the small precious joy of being with him dissolved into particles of light that infused and expanded the joy of co-creating with the Earth herself, burying my hands in her soil and entering the cycle of planting, tending, growing, harvesting, bidding farewell, and turning over death to feed new life.
And then, a miracle: I learned that my garden was not just a collection of plants, but a habitat, a world I’d created to welcome life in its infinite variety, beautiful and astonishing. I had participated in creation; I was responsible for the sustenance of plants, butterflies, birds, bees, worms, spiders, and so much more.
I didn’t know all these things were happening when I was 8 years old; these were not my words or intelligently scaffolded thoughts, but my heart knew that, having created a garden, I was forever changed, and my spirit, too.
The connection between you and your garden becomes a kind of knowledge within you that grows like a garden as you tend it, and then, one day, you realize you’re a garden, too; we all are. The rhythms of tending a first little garden through its seasons are the rhythms of life all around you, and they become the way you breathe, and think, and move, and respond to life. What is the current angle of light and how does it fall across my garden? What is the temperature and humidity? What is the soil composition? How should I amend it? Which are the weeds? How are the seasons changing in length and severity with our changing climate, and how will this affect my gardens? Do I know beneficial insects from pests? What does my garden need to thrive?
If you garden, everything about the Earth’s healthcare matters. Because you realize it affects yours and everyone else’s as well.
And the metaphors for healing through gardening are so profound and plentiful that you’re bound to discover them in every artistic genre. Gardens and green life were integral to two of my favorite books when I was young. In The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the grieving protagonist and the broken family members she has come to live with are all utterly transformed and healed through the act of reviving a garden. And the heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, sees a tree rising from the cement of her tenement and likens it to her own harsh life, and all the reasons she can triumph over its adversity and flourish. I don’t know if these beautifully-written books became part of my spirit because I was a gardener, too, or if they deepened and enhanced what gardening was just beginning to mean to me; I suspect both are true, since the power of art to both mirror and transform is why it is magical.
When I was older, I read about Corrie ten Boom’s life in her book, The Hiding Place. From all outward appearances, she was a skilled and humble woman who crafted watches in her father’s shop near Amsterdam. The family lived above their shop and were known for living out the beliefs they held dear, but other than their remarkable kindness, they blended into their neighborhood and lives rather undramatically. And then, when Corrie was 50, everything changed with the Nazi occupation and the treatment of the ten Booms’ Jewish neighbors and friends. The family made choices that revealed their courage, their willingness to act according to their beliefs, and their freely-offered consent to risk their lives for others. Corrie’s story underscores the fact that, just when you think your life is not only predictable but closing in on its final chapters, amazingly, life may ask more of you than you ever imagined or would have thought possible. This is helpful enlightenment for our present world as well: If you’re still breathing, be ready for what life may ask of you.
But, back to gardening: After the war, Corrie’s faith led her to secure funds to create a healing hospice of sorts for victims of the war’s great suffering. The astonishing twist was that the patients she chose to help were former Nazis, victims sickened by their own hatred and choices to cooperate with evil. Corrie reasoned that healing must necessarily be extended to all involved if the world were to be transformed, and the main source of healing she offered these wretched souls was employment in the acres of gardens on the site’s grounds. She had every human reason to hate and reject these people, but she instead humbly demonstrated what Love and forgiveness really mean, and how vital a part of our healing is always available in a garden.
I reread all of these books and other gardening-related treasures every few years. They teach me, over and over, about choices, transformation, and healing. They nurture my learning and deepen my gratitude and Love. They teach me about filling holes. Or not.
Holes in our lives, holes in our hearts, holes in our gardens…the latter are apparent at this time of year and were the actual inspiration for this post, as this is the time of the year when the gardens show me their holes. I love their fullness and beauty just as they are, but my eyes seek out where they want more structure, textural variety, color, or height, new blooms at different times, or just greater surprise and delight, and the notes I make will fuel autumn’s replanting and a winter’s worth of browsing through gardening catalogues. Gardens, like life, are always changing. So, this week, I made notes about holes.
And of course, the notion of holes in design and appearance took me deeper, to the metaphor of the holes in my own life, and in those I love, or in those on public display and open to scrutiny. To be human is to be incomplete in our aspirations and desires, to be one of mankind’s walking wounded, as we all are, and the gift to be present to the ways we fill these perceived and actual deficits and wounds, or the rejection of this gift and the refusal to explore our actions and their consequences, guides most of our spiritual and emotional progress, and certainly affects our physical health. Several years ago, a tornado blew through our gardens, which teases out further questions. What have I done with the holes in my life and my heart that I did not cause or choose?
In this time of unusual stillness and, for many of us, long days of isolation, I hope we can find the space and time for tending the gardens of our spirits with graciousness and love, offering them both accountability and forgiveness, and may we heal the holes we’ve made, allowed, or received, designing our lives with greater attention to breadth and depth, and offering hospitality to new ways of being, welcoming more guests than we have imagined, beautiful, varied, and astonishing.
(Fiona says, “I am not allowed outside, but I am also astonishing.”)