One of the things I do regularly in my work with nurses are mindful awareness exercises. It is important to make the time to see things we normally do not notice. Preferably, things that make us smile.
Walk with me.
For years I couldn’t seem to find the time to walk in a garden, let alone have one that I created and could spend time working in. Oh, I had a small garden, but only to the kind I could glance at as I ran by…The kind that someone comes to tend bi-weekly. I always wanted to get my hands dirty, but there just never seemed to be any time. We moved from the city to a rural area in 2000. Surrounded by woods, I wanted a garden to work in so badly, and I started to plant things here and there, yet still I didn’t have the time for it. My commute to work had tripled to several hours each way…
Then September 11th happened. Although my commute got considerably longer for a time immediately after 9-11, my awareness of the need to connect with myself and with nature finally won over. Teaching about dying and death and working on a campus right next to Bellevue Hospital where the remains of the 9-11 victims were being taken, was intense, but the death of an RN to BSN student, who was a firefighter and first responder, along with the many students who had suffered losses and/or were suffering from PTS, made it even more so.**
Every time I looked at the NY skyline, it was a reminder that no one knows when it will all end. It will always be a reminder. We do not really know; in the blink of an eye life can manifest into death. So why put off those things that we really want to do? I decided I would find (or make!) the time.
I needed that garden.
My first attempts didn’t work out very well. I had this idea of a secret garden behind the house where there would be all kinds of roses. My daughters bought me many rose bushes. I planted them. And one blistery cold morning I walked outside in my secret garden to find only the stubs of those rose bushes. Apparently my secret garden wasn’t so secret to the deer in the area… I never knew that roses were a delicacy for deer.
The following spring I had my husband get a 6 foot chain link fence installed around the entire back portion of the property. Combined with my very big Akita (a Japanese dog), I thought that would surely deter the deer, and it did. But, there wasn’t enough sunlight in the secret garden for roses to really thrive, and only a few of the original bushes remain over a decade later. I am okay with that because what I really wanted were host and nectar plants for butterflies and hummingbirds and I found out soon enough that roses don’t quite fit the bill for that anyway (although I have noticed that the black swallowtails do occasionally nectar on some roses).
Back in 2002 I began, with the development of the secret garden, to cater to butterflies. The more I learned about gardening for butterflies, the more I realized that wildflowers endemic to the area were necessary too. I started to give native things that popped up here and there some space instead of yanking them out.
Over a short period, three different kinds of very purple wildflowers found their way to my secret garden without my help… Violets, in early spring are everywhere. And they just happen to be the host plant for fritillary butterflies (I do not believe in coincidences). Spiderwort (tradescantia) follows in later spring, and is a great nectar source for the butterflies. Then the most eye-catching and butterfly-loved blue mist flower (hardy ageratum) takes over from mid-July through September (it will stick around until frost really). It is incredible how these three purple plants have transformed the secret garden into something that has its own personality. If I hadn’t taken the time to ‘see’ them (and had treated them like weeds that needed to be killed or removed), I am sure I wouldn’t have all the butterflies I have (and all the pretty purple flowers!). See the blue mistflower (below) off to the right?
Yes, I wound up with a pond and a little waterfall. What is a secret garden without one? I cajoled my husband, kids and grandkids into helping me create it. Off to the side is a swinging bench, where one can sit and watch the fish, frogs, damselflies and dragonflies (and other things).
Look below…can you can see what you normally might not notice? Look closely. AHA!
My garden quickly expanded; I needed a small yellow garden to honor my dad (yellow was his favorite color). The fireworks looking plant is a goldenrod (solidago), and it is called fireworks…
I wanted an area along the fence line filled with flowers, which later became known as our “little meadow.” It is an area I cultivated over time with good host plants and nectar sources that compete for space and fill it up with color. The plants fill it up with dancing insects and hummers too. Our bees are so happy that they do not leave and sleep right where they eat (I am not kidding).
I broke a general rule of thumb by putting up bird feeders and bird houses. Some folks say you shouldn’t encourage birds to your butterfly garden because they eat the larva of the butterflies. But the birds are here anyway because of the flowers and ponds. I cannot get them to leave (and do not really want to), so why not make them comfortable too? Feeding them bird seed and an occasional suet keeps them happy (and helps to deter them from eating some of the larva and flower seeds, I think).
Our garden(s) grew exuberantly in a few years.
Yes, there are some roses here (see the very tall fence behind them?)
The summer I was diagnosed with cancer, I decided we needed a larger pond… Of course, I could get my family to do anything for me that summer…it is back there, see the bridge beyond the tiger swallowtail (did you notice the butterfly)?
So, what is all of this about, really? At some point, I became mindfully aware that I needed to connect with nature. For several years, after 9-11, followed by surgery for cancer, I couldn’t seem to get out of the garden. I had not just connected with nature; the garden and everything in it became a way for me to tune into myself and helped me to be more aware of me. Somehow I had started to pay attention to my breathing, and found that when I was in the garden, my mind was empty of the monkey chatter in my brain. I had become mindfully aware of my here and now. I was appreciating my moments.
I spent a few winters reading about butterflies and gardening and from late February until the ground re-froze again the following winter, I spent every (and I mean every) available moment in the garden. Nature is healing but I think it is our connection to other things that makes us feel whole again when we have been wounded. Mindful awareness helps us become more aware of the wholeness-the integrality of things. We go speeding through life and we miss out on so much because we are unaware of the present. Once you are mindfully aware, it becomes easier to keep that sense of wholeness and belonging with you all the time. It renews us and reaffirms our sense of purpose. The key is to get there first and then to stay there, living life mindfully.
All these pictures are about reconnecting with the beauty around you. It is about finding, and sometimes making, meaning, when you cannot find it. It is about looking for the purposeful transformation of energy that is occurring all around us, all the time. It is the essence of my Reconnect Contention (see the ART Model) and when I explain it I often fall back on the words written by W. H. Auden “We must love one another or die.” We must not only love one another, we must love ourselves, and the animate and inanimate things around us too.
If you have read my latest book, you will recognize this picture from my description in it of an egret communing with a horse in Costa Rica. When I saw them together in a field, I was struck by the communality of it and had to have the driver pull over so I could get a picture. How many people go through life never noticing things like this?
After every storm there are rainbows, somewhere… How can we not LOOK for them?
The sun sets every day. I notice it no matter where I happen to be and am always amazed when others do not seem to notice it at all. This is one of many sunsets I have been gifted with capturing on film; it is at the point in Cape May.
I ride a ferry to and from work in New York City and whenever the sun is setting I make sure I am near a window. Looking around, I rarely see anyone paying any attention to the setting sun. Every sunset is new and unique. It is a such beautiful thing to see over the water and especially so over the skyline of New York and the Statue of Liberty. Why don’t people take a moment or two to appreciate it?
Walk with me.
I like garden paths; my daughter found this one when she walked over to an old dilapidated gate in Pompeii. We went through and followed the path which meanders up alongside an incredible vista of peaks and valleys, ancient and new. Wildflowers were everywhere. It reminded me of life and death; how it is all one.
I use the picture below (taken while we were walking along this path) in my work, very often accompanied by a quote of Virginia Wolff’s, “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” (Diary, 17 February 1922).
Looking up while in a piazza in Venice, Italy, I observed another sign of life breaking in… (or is it out? of an inanimate object). Notice the pigeons too!
How can we not notice that water likes to hug flowers?
You have just walked along a path with me. In my ART model geared to enhance professional quality of life, I encourage the development of mindful awareness as one goes about day-to-day living. Now it is up to you.
So go ahead. Open the garden gate and go down a path of your own. Look for the things you do not normally see. Reconnect with the places and people around you. Be mindful of your moments and appreciate them. Reaffirm your purpose.
For more beautiful music: Inspirational Music Composer William Cushman
**Last year I was prompted to record some of my 9-11 memories in a digital story, entitled Remembering.