I have a pair of blue denim overalls.
The overalls are faded and the knees are stained with two decades’ worth of weeding and planting. A few paint splatters adorn the left leg. The hardware that holds the straps in place is tired, allowing for one strap or the other to slip off my shoulder with great regularity. The right hip button comes undone easily, exposing the side of my underpants.
Sometimes I readjust the straps; sometimes I reclose the button. But because my hands are encased in dirt-covered gardening gloves when I’m wearing my overalls, I usually let these wardrobe failures slide.
The overalls are my version of a church lady’s Sunday hat. I wear them when I’m entering my most peaceful place. I wear them when I’m connecting with a higher power. I wear them when I want to hear what my heart has to say. For me, gardening provides a portal to calm. Gardening connects me to the rest of creation.
But this isn’t a gardening book.
My garden does, indeed, play a lead role in the story told here. I credit her (yes, I think of my garden as a “her”) with slapping me upside the head as a young, career-driven, stressed-out mom, admonishing me to simmer down, shut up, and go out and grow something.
Your story may feature another character in the lead role. It could be painting, writing, photography, or jewelry making. It could be horseback riding, scuba diving, running, walking in the woods, or simply sitting on a park bench and watching the clouds roll by.
This book is about how my garden sparked a process of transformation that was subsequently deepened and accelerated by life events. I had never planned on having a garden. I had never planned on most of the life events that shaped me.
I spent the first couple of decades of adulthood resisting the reality of my life, which to any outside observer was pretty great. The internal narrator in my head, however, always had to look for something to complain about. My own thinking process was my greatest source of suffering.
The garden grounded me. While I was cultivating the soil, thoughts about what I “should” be doing with my life instead of raising kids or how I “should” be using that master’s degree dissolved. The scent of the loamy earth cleared my head. The life force in a root ball was palpable in my hands. A glint of sunlight reflecting off an earthworm drew my attention to even tinier creatures digging in the dirt alongside me. The sensory experience of gardening silenced the crazy-making voice in my head, replacing the whiny chatter with a deep (and quite unfamiliar) sense of peace.
The garden was my first mindfulness mentor, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Mindfulness—the practice of paying attention to the present moment and observing one’s thoughts nonjudgmentally, without getting carried away by past or future stories—is bandied about frequently these days. The term is often paired with the ever-growing body of neuroscience findings on the health benefits of meditation.
But when I first met my garden over twenty years ago, I had never heard of mindfulness, let alone practiced it. Meditation in those days was still the purview of spiritual seekers and crystal-carrying hippie types. I was a left-brained international economist who was above all of that nonsense. I had more important things to do.
The problem was, the garden was only able to work her magic when I was physically in her embrace. The rest of the time I was still a prisoner to my internal bully, that voice in my head that told me I wasn’t living up to society’s expectations of me, wasn’t doing important enough work, wasn’t making enough money, and wasn’t appreciated enough by my family for all that I had sacrificed for them. My internal bully made me suffer, but I didn’t even recognize it as suffering since that state of mind was my norm. I think that’s the case for many of us.
This is a story about how I learned to recognize that the internal bully was not my true self. My true self, it turns out, is quite a bit different from the person I had thought I was supposed to be. Though it took me a while to accept her, my true self is a lot more enjoyable to be around, both for me and everyone else in my life. My true self was able to reach a negotiated settlement with that ugly internal bully, who now keeps quiet most of the time.
Twists and turns have marked the journey, many of them amusing, others not so much. Breast cancer barged into my life in 2009, shouldering the garden to the side and forcing me to clear my perennially crowded calendar for a year of treatment and recovery. An accidental download of an audiobook led to an epiphany. Many teachers crossed my path without my actively seeking them. Through it all, the garden was always in the background, welcoming me when I had time for her, forgiving me when I didn’t, never ever judging me.
The story is presented is three parts. Part I, “Dormant,” paints a picture of my pre-awareness life. Though the American Heritage Dictionary definition of dormant includes words like “quiescent” and “inactive,” my life in Part I is anything but. It was a time of chaos, resistance, and constant battles with ego, in line with dormancy’s “cessation of growth or development.” Despite my “busy-ness,” I was dormant in the midst of the frenzy.
Part II, “Pruned,” introduces my breast cancer experience and its role in catalyzing a complete reorientation of my body, mind, and spirit. Though a piece of my body was indeed “removed or cut out,” in line with the dictionary definition of “pruned,” many parts of my life were also pruned back during this period. Pruning a plant directs energy back down to the roots, strengthening prospects for future growth. There is no better analogy than this for the role breast cancer played in my life. This section culminates with a spiritual epiphany in the garden that literally made me drop my trowel.
Part III, “Blossoming,” describes the practical steps I took to learn to listen more closely to my heart and embrace my true self—to “develop; flourish” as it were. Strengthening my body (per my cancer team’s orders), creating a living environment that enhanced positive energy flows, and eventually training my mind through a structured program of daily meditation were all essential ingredients to nurturing my best self.
It’s a story of discovering how ego influences our sense of identity, of how career expectations bump up against parenting demands, of the impact of serious illness, and of how—if we learn to hear the deeper intelligence below our surface brain chatter—we can come through it all stronger, joyful, and more content than we could ever have imagined.