Let me say up front that I harbor serious doubts that there is a single contemplative bone in my body. This is not to say that I don’t think about things — I think all the time about all sorts of stuff — but quiet, reflective, meditative contemplation is as alien to me as breathing underwater.
There is a single exception. When I walk through nature with my earbuds in, listening to Gregorian chant, I come the closest I suspect I ever will to a truly meditative state.
One advantage of living in Southern California is the ability to garden and visit gardens 365 days a year, And, our winter, ironically, is when the rain comes, and plants grow most abundantly. As a true daughter of St. Francis — my confirmation saint and personal favorite — walking through gardens and woods is the next closest thing to heaven.
On Saturday — a sunny day in the 60s — I was walking through the South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes, California, on a hilly peninsula south of Los Angeles, at the far end of the Santa Monica Bay. A former mine turned landfill, it was converted into a public garden in 1961. Covering 87 acres, it combines manicured plots — roses, a children’s garden, a Japanese garden, succulents and palms — with pine and deciduous woodland trails, meadows and waterways.
As an amateur garden photographer, I took a lot of shots. This one was as I was listening to the Kyrie, from the bestselling CD “Chant,” by Cistercian monks in Austria — click here for a story I wrote about it a few years ago.
I had two thoughts, one about gardening, and another about being a writer of fiction, and then they both came together. It’s hardly a statement of philosophy or theology, just a musing.
As any dedicated amateur gardener knows, a garden is loved into existence. It takes work and planning and materials, but that’s not nearly enough. If it’s not one’s job to garden, then to look out at a patch of ground and envision beauty there is an act of love — because that’s the only thing that can sustain you through the tilling and weeding and planting and watering and all the hard labor, disappointment and frustration it takes to create a garden.
Even if you are responsible for every aspect of the project, the garden is going to have its own ideas about what works and what doesn’t. Some plants thrive where you’d rather they were less prominent; while other, perhaps more beloved, plants, wither or are attacked by pests and die. Weeds push in; animals visit and do their own damage. And of course, there’s wind and rain and scorching sun — or no sun and no rain — and all of the things beyond your control.
No matter how much you try to exercise your power over a garden, some element of it will always rebel against you.
In the end, the garden is a cooperative effort among its creator and the plants, creatures and weather. Even death and destruction has its own beauty, as seen in this stark photo of an upturned stump.
Then I thought about being a writer, creating characters in a story. Unlike the garden, where you’re working with plants already existing in nature, the writer is in apparently total control of the elements of the story. Especially with a novel or short story, as opposed to a screenplay, there aren’t outside influences during the creation process.
But, inevitably, the characters you’ve built begin to live and breathe on their own, and to argue about the things you want them to do. You can force them do whatever you want, of course, but if it’s not in line with their natures, it’s going to sound forced and artificial, not organic and authentic. The reader just won’t buy it.
So, even if you are the demigod of your own little fictional universe, your creations are going to talk back.
Then I thought about God and man. Like a good gardener, God loved the universe into existence. He didn’t buy everything for it at the garden center — and obviously, Nature runs by rules He set — but once it was all planted, and God let it begin to live on its own, I suspect He found that it began to have a mind of its own as well. Even Adam and Eve, in that primordial Garden, disobeyed.
God is the author of creation, but once a thing exists, if you want it to be truly alive, you have to accept that it will not always do as you wish. That goes for plants and animals and people — fictional or real.
Images: Kate O’Hare
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