In late June of last year, I was on call for daily radiation treatments. Having suffered through the claustrophobia of the preparatory CAT scans and the bizarre fashioning around my body of what the technicians creepily called a “cradle,” I just wanted to get the next two months over with. I kept putting dates on my calendar and the cancer center people kept calling to delay them by a day or two.
Those days, my head was beginning to clear and my ability to do anything for more than 15 minutes at a time was gradually coming back. Having made it through eight months of diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, I was waiting for ethereal transformation of my very being to wash over me in reward. Instead, what seemed to be returning was the very worst of who I’d ever been. Demanding, snippy, disappointed.
Pain and sweats raged to a higher pitch at night, leaving me in battle with the pillows, the bed itself. I thrashed against it all as if the duel was happening on the edge of a cliff. I could see myself careening off the narrow trail, finally and forever hopeless. I couldn’t even imagine what it was I should reach for, grasp for, pray for, anything at all for. What the hell was I looking for anymore?
Grace, said the whisper at the back of my addled mind. I was seeking grace. The message was enough to let me sleep for an hour or so. When I woke to the twitter of bluebirds, the trill of redwinged blackbirds, the whoosh of hawks’ wings and the rasp of the crow triplets arguing with each other, the whisper had become a gentle hum. I will seek grace, I decided. Just as soon as I figure out what it is.
I began by searching for references to grace in writing. It was everywhere: people needing grace, people receiving grace, people saying grace — amazing, amazing, amazing grace. Even in my own writing I found at least a half dozen references to the idea of grace (usually the lack thereof). But I couldn’t find anything that told me what these lovely literary, musical, artistic or spiritual allusions to grace actually meant. Something more than peace but less than revolutionary change. More than calming but less than inspiring.
Grace is apparently as hard to define as it is to embody. So I let go of trying to assign it meaning, and instead worked on imagining the simplest possible setting where I might find a sense of grace.
Gardens, said the same whisper that had suggested grace to begin with. Gardens? I live in a junkyard where the growing season is somewhere between 28 and 40 days long, and 20-mile-an-hour winds constitute a light breeze. Oh, right. I was searching for something not immediately apparent or at my fingertips.
Fine. Gardens. Like the Maine garden of my childhood that taught me how delicious asparagus really is. Or the community garden in Wyoming I helped create, where the gardeners say they come in the evenings after work just to nibble at beans and strawberries and smell the dirt. And the wild gardens of the high Rocky Mountains that burst with overwhelming color and perfume in the few short weeks they’re able to grow each year.
Then it occurred to me that many of the books I’m drawn to are fashioned around a theme of gardens. Like most recently in the light and sweet garden-based memoir series by Dominique Browning, beginning with Around the House and In the Garden; and in Molly Peacock’s extraordinary The Paper Garden.
But this isn’t a new reading interest for me. In the late 80s after my son Tristan died, I was sustained by works that brought me to women’s gardens. I lost myself in pages of leisurely descriptions of the order of blooms, of the painting of colors on blossoms I’d never heard of. I walked with the writers and their characters across lawns and fields and craggy shorelines that took them to their gardens and underscored their searches for meaning in life, for efforts to sort out matters of love and heartbreak.
Back then I was happy to slow to the daily crawl of May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude. I was grateful for the length of Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, for the time it allowed me to be lost in that richly wrought world of gardening, art, family struggle and the changing definitions of home.
Last week, it was real life gardening that brought me to Ithaca, New York, although its hills were ironically covered with snow at the time. For eight to ten hours a day every day, I sat and listened to women and men who are pouring enormous amounts of energy and passion into the seeds, ground, harvesting, and political war zone of trying to create food justice in one of America’s many unjust landscapes. Born locally or finding their way to Ithaca from places like Bermuda and Peru and the housing projects of New York City, they inspired and humbled me as they railed against the barriers before them and burst with great ideas for how to make them crumble. They stunned me with their willingness and ability to break bread with the researchers and academics who shuttled up and down the hill of immense privilege on top of which sits Cornell University.
The voices of these great activists, and their view from the bottom of the hill, crammed into my head and replaced my own dreams when I slipped into bed late every night. Their battles and mine threatened to become one jumbled mass of meaningless chaos. I could barely keep up with the mix of quests happening in the gardens of Ithaca Village and the greenhouses of Cornell, let alone hang onto my own journey’s goals. Without a single break in each day’s extraordinary agenda of interviews, conversations, meetings and seminars, my personal work slipped from my grasp and I missed my self-imposed deadline for publishing something in my blog once a week, every Wednesday. Poor me. Lazy me. Incapable me.
The meetings continued to blossom with hope from what people were talking about and accomplishing. I felt simultaneously embraced by and unmoored from what they were growing in their gardens and their lives.
At the end of the week, it took me an hour to repack the large suitcase I’d needed for such a long stay. My body was buzzing — satisfied and spent. I was still smarting from having missed my own writing deadline, wondering if inner peace and balance were to be permanently elusive myths for me.
I checked my phone and logged into my email, collecting final messages from the people who had been so generous in sharing pieces of their lives with me during my visit to their home. Against the shameful edge of resentment for taking yet more time away from myself, I began to thank people for everything they’d given.
Thank you for your time, your good work, your gardens and the beautiful food they bring to people in need, I wrote. Thank you for your courage to say what’s true and your willingness to forgo popularity for justice. Thank you for teaching me and reminding me of what’s important.
As I wrote, my exhaustion eased. The grating concerns of my personal domain smoothed out, and I remembered one of the conversations I had with the young woman from Peru who was changing the look and feel of every project she took on in Ithaca. We’d been talking about the loneliness and pain of leadership — me more than 30 years out, she at the youthful starting line. She leaned in to explain how there was something those of us on down the road in life were forgetting.
“We look up to the leaders before us who teach us,” she told me of herself and her fellow young gardeners of all kinds. She went on to tell me that they, the emerging leaders, are learning their lessons well. “And so,” she said, “we have power, too. We’re all around, and we all have the power to help make change.”
Her earnest eyes and soft voice were proof. I really could feel it all around me, just like she said. The power of many. And there it was. Grace. Warm, quiet, ever changing. Grace. I missed a deadline in exchange for it. It came once again in a way I hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t really define. Yet as always, it came in the form of a whisper. It came in the form of a gift.