Cultivating My Garden

I have been reading Stanley Kunitz’s book, The Wild Braid, which talks of his lifelong love of gardening.  He built it out of a wild place, plant by plant,  learning with time which would prosper, which suffer, testing to see whether the sea kelp and sea breeze would nourish the earth, anticipating each spring the joys of beginning anew.

Every sentence of the memoir and each line of poetry speaks to the concreteness of the garden, its soil and plants and snakes, the sunlight shining through the spruce tree, awakening his heart each morning.  The garden is no metaphor.  His relationship with it bears a multitude of meanings but the garden is mostly itself.  It is a gritty garden.  The cultivation is a sweaty love affair.

As I read, I wonder:  Where is my garden?  What have I built and tended with such a continuous devotion to detail?  What has required me to pay attention to the seasons or the soil?  Have I learned to live in this material world, as Kunitz has, or have I glided through, too attentive to my own feelings and thoughts to really take notice?

For a decade or so during the 1970’s and 1980’s, I was a builder.  First I bought a 30 acre parcel of land on a fast flowing stream in Southern New Hampshire, then cut trees with an ancient and very heavy chain saw to make way for my .8 mile driveway.  With my friend John’s help, I cleared the land and built a house, using lumber from a nearby, one-man mill and stained glass windows taken from junk yards, which we brought in on a jerry-rigged pickup truck.  We lived in tents and cooked outside.  It took me two summers and every weekend in between.  I loved every minute of it.

Then, feeling alive and excited by the concreteness of the house—so different from the therapeutic relationships I had been cultivating during psychotherapy sessions and the ideas I wrote about—I set to work on the Victorian home that Franny and I bought in Newton, Massachusetts.  I renovated the third floor, banging down every wall and creating a single, large space, with a high, arched ceiling of cedar planks and roof windows to bring the light to my desk.  Then came the kitchen and the shed and an inclination to let go of my professional life in order to build more.

Though I might have made a go of it in the construction trade,  I am a practical person, with at least a little bit of a conservative streak and I had a family to feed.  Instead of gardens or houses, I built organizations to fit, in some very small way, my wish to bring greater justice to our society.  There was a post-graduate training institute for aspiring family therapists, a clinic to treat illness in a family and community context, and the Institute for Nonprofit Practice to train active and emerging nonprofit leaders.  There’s a similarity to houses and gardens.  You have an idea, develop a plan, then lay a foundation.  The organizations are never exactly as planned.  They are buffeted by social and financial, not wintry winds, but they, too, need o sway enough to stay alive and to hold fast enough to fulfill their purpose.  The organizations have provided me a great deal of satisfaction, more in the building than the tending, I suppose.  I imagine that I live a little through them in the way Kunitz lives through his plantings.

I’ve not so much concerned myself with the bricks and mortar of those organizations, but rather with the people inside them.  My most sustained cultivation has involved young people.  My children, of course.  They focused my mind and heart like no others.  But in addition, all of my adult life has been spent teaching and mentoring young therapists, then young leaders.  I formed one training institute after another.  Even in retirement I mentor, with great pleasure, numbers of young people and get to observe their growth. At the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, one of my students has taken over to become gardener-in-chief.  I love watching this new generation build and build in a spirit and with a discipline that makes me proud.

I am older now and retired but the builder’s urge is still strong.  There remains the need to add a new row of plantings to my garden.  I dream of writing stories and poems.  Painting, too.  Wouldn’t it be grand to publish stories and brief poems to go with my essays?  I am almost tearful at the thought of these seeds.  Probably, I won’t know how.  When faced with making them public, I might grow shy, but that’s alright.  I like the idea of being shy and timid as I move into my late seventies.

The more I think of it, though, the more I know that I already have a garden to cultivate.  It’s the garden of conscious aging.  I am garden and gardener.   I tend it every day and turn over the soil each season.  Each morning when I awaken, I ask myself “How’s it going?”  When I write in my journal, I ask: What is it that I’m doing and experiencing differently than when I was young—and what is very much the same.  I’ve written about the way that time has both sped up and slowed down, how much more spacious my mind feels when it searches for solutions to problems, and how much more limited my body is.  I’ve written about the perspective I’ve gained and how it has influenced friendships and marriage.  Eccentricity has become a newly welcome friends.  The regularity of the themes don’t seem so different to me than the wind-blown rows of a Provincetown garden.

Like the rows of sage and poppies and the tall grass that grows around the edges of seaside gardens, my themes are tossed by the wind and warmed by the sun.  With time, they maintain most of their shape, yet change, as well.   Like Kunitz’s need to cut down one of his treasured Spruce trees in order to let in more light and to give more room to the other plants, I cut out activities, let go some relationships, relinquish some ideas and hopes in order to shed the most possible light in my garden.

Each year I have learned how to tend my garden a little differently, a little better.  I have learned to feed it less and to let it have more of its own sway.  Not so much that I can’t see the rows.  There’s beauty to order.  Not so much that I can’t see the edges.  My garden can’t spread everywhere.  It needs shape, even limits.  But there are times when my thoughts and desires resists my controls, and my garden extends well beyond its normal boundaries.

Kunitz talks about the art of trimming bonsai trees and compares it to the discipline of pruning his Juniper tree, much as he would a poem.  He loves, especially, to trim off the excess.  But he also says:  “The danger is that you cut away the heart of a poem, and are left with only the most ordered and contained element…You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origins.”  (p. 57)

Each morning when I write in my journal or when I walk in the woods, my discipline falls away, just a bit, and I find myself a little lost.  Sometimes I feel at one with the trees and the sky.  If I’m thinking of my family and friends, there are moments when I lose a sense of separateness, and I belong to them.  In old age, the love I have with Franny seems so much less impeded by the weeds of doubt, the need for boundaries, and the yelps of individuality.  And when I step back to view the whole, I am pleased with my garden.