December 7, 2010
My partner and I live just north of Los Angeles in the slightly inclined stretch of land that becomes the foothills and then the startling uprightness of the San Gabriel Mountains. In winter, the mountains are often dusted with snow. After a snow, when the sun peeks between the horizon and the clouds, the mountains are tinted yellow, orange and pink. In the summer, the setting sun tints the mountains violet.
We bought our house on a whim. Jim had remained behind in Edinburgh to sort out our move back to the States and I had the job of scouting out houses near my new job in Pasadena. I had seen several houses with a real estate agent, none of which met our criteria that the house must not need any renovation, should be on a cute street, and should be a house built in the 1920s. As an afternoon of house hunting dragged on, I began to despair of ever finding "The House" when the agent and I pulled in front of the house we came to own. Upon seeing it, I immediately remembered our rented flat in Edinburgh, Scotland.
I had lived in Edinburgh for the previous two years while doing graduate work in economics at the University of Edinburgh. My partner and I had rented the garden flat of a terrace home in the Tollcross neighborhood, which as many said was as good as the adjacent neighborhood, Merchiston Park where J. K. Rowling lived, but half the price. The flat's back garden was a tangle when we moved in. Snails near four inches across ravaged any green leaf. My landlord said that his grandmother had planted the garden; to me the garden looked as if nothing in it had been done since Gran went to her reward. I have made many gardens in my life and I determined to make sense of this garden and to add a touch of myself as well.
The house, of which we had the bottom half, had been built in the mid 19th century. Its walls were thick Scottish granite; the window ledges were deep enough to curl up into with a book. The upper level had two bedrooms, one was of which was unusable as its windows were but five feet from a street that led from the football pitch and several popular pubs. Downstairs, we had a parlor, a kitchen and an unheated conservatory that opened to the garden that faced north.
The garden was walled with thick granite blocks piled eight feet high. At the bottom of the garden was the brick built McEwen brewery. An ancient apple tree that grew along one wall produced mean, puckery apples while the gooseberry that grew in the tree and across the wall produced sweet, Concord grape-sized fruit. At the back of the garden was a shingled garden shed and a gazebo set on an elevated terrace. The garden shed was full of big pieces of slate and the bodies of snails that had been caught in a sudden Scottish freeze. We scraped off the snail carcasses and buried their remains under the bushes. The slates we piled into a sort of altar that I planted with ferns and vines from the garden.
We had decided to do without a car while in Edinburgh, which is so compact that nothing is more than a few steps away; but, without a car a garden project became a matter of how much could I bring home in my trolley cart? A trolley cart is a tall wire box on four wheels, which can handle no more than a bag full of groceries without going wonky. Nevertheless, day after day I bought snail bait or fertilizer or potting soil at the neighborhood garden shop that I trundled home in my trolley. One day the checking out clerk at the garden shop while ringing up my order, leaned over and said, "Sir, we do deliver free of charge." After that, freed of the drudgery of hauling garden supplies over cobble stone streets in a wonky trolley, I doubled my work in the garden and with time the garden recovered.
I made several mistakes in that garden. I trimmed a boxwood hedge, which promptly died. My landlord was horrified at the sight, stammering, "My grandmother put in that hedge." I also trimmed the heather, a gardener no-no. Thank god the heather didn't die. I had a lot of successes as well. The Solomon's seal increased and thrust a profusion of its white flowers into the pale Scottish sun from under the shrubs. The daffodils and irises I planted bloomed in what had been empty flowerbeds. The rose that grew across the conservatory roof was renewed and began to bloom continuously.
Not long after the garden recovered and flourished, the day came that I had to return to the U.S. A garden is a patch of the planet that you care take for the next caretaker. My successor would discover that I had planted daffodils to be followed by bluebells under the shrubs. He would wonder at my choices and gardening techniques; and, would set about making the garden his own.
The house I saw that day with the real estate agent was a renovated 1920s English Cottage bungalow with an English garden, front and back. I thought the front garden was too masculine, dominated as it was with big masses of old lavenders. The back garden, which I loved, was a woodland garden with mature trees under planted with camellias and azaleas. I was reminded by the house's garden of my garden in Scotland, which at first sight had been a tangled mess full of potential which under my care had flourished.
I have taken care of my current garden for seven years now. I have learned that gardenias will not grow in my garden unless shaded. I have become amazed at how fast plants grow in Southern California and consequently how much pruning there is to do. I have watched as plants like beach strawberries and lion's tail have sprung unbidden from the soil. Over time, this garden I have tended has thrived and become my own.
When we give our attention to something, it flourishes, just like a garden. Our attitude about life is very much like a garden. We can ignore it and let it go to dark weeds and tangled vines; or, we can turn our minds to learning to see the miraculous that life offers all about us just as a garden surprises us with unexpected beauty when we give it our attention.
I believe we swim in an ocean of miracles that we could see if we would but give them our attention. A miracle can be the smile of a child who passes us in a crosswalk. It can be the pattern of shadows on a wall. It can be the pointed leaves of daffodils pushing up through the soil in spring. It was the checking out clerk in Edinburgh who told me her store had free delivery. I believe that miracles are the way the Universe tells us we are loved.
I have known so many people with HIV/AIDS who could see only anger and regret in the world about them; many of them have died. To survive year after year with HIV/AIDS as I have, I believe you have to clear the tangled vines in the garden of your mind to let in the sun and the miraculous all about us. With time and attention our ability to experience the miraculous blooms like a well-tended garden. Ugly events may make us doubt that we live surrounded by the miraculous, but they are like vines covering a window. Once the vines are cleared, the sun beams through the dusty glass making patterns on the floor and once again we see the miracle that is life.