The bittersweet is legendary out here on the Eastern end of Long Island. It could be Charleston’s Spanish moss but for the burnt orange outline it makes of late autumn. Reminding one more of extravagant pierced earrings on a tall, funky woman than of tangled vine, the bittersweet is the garden’s farewell song. When its color is gone, winter reigns.
And that’s when I get itchy. Winter is a bit of a problem. Of course you can go ice-skating and skiing. I’ve even located the proper costume for winter walking. But you can’t kneel in the garden. There’s no point. No one needs you to fondle the soil. Absent that kneeling and I get spiritually itchy. I can’t seem to pray in churches or at any of the appropriate altars and therefore am dependent on the temple of the snow pea rows, the shrine of the compost, the holy water of the sprinkling can. Like most people, I need the cover of useful activity for my praise to erupt. I need the experience of forgiveness that the spinach didn’t grow (again) to prepare myself for the larger errors in my life. I need a little beauty to burst into song. I worship in the garden. I don’t seem to know how to elsewhere. There are too many people, too many patterns, too much performance.
When I get out to the garden, the quiet fertilizes my spirit self. I know most people think I’m already being spiritual at my job: After all, I am a parish pastor and have been one for nearly 20 years. But most people are wrong about most things. My work is just that—work, not terribly different from that of a teacher or secretary or an editor or a manager. I do all those things at about the same distance from God that most people do their things. If I officiate at a funeral, I am performing more than praying. When I preach a sermon, I am anxious that it flows and communicates. That anxiety is not worship. I may even be more desperate for the garden than most people; I need the people and their various poverties to go away so that I can go towards God.
Not to mention the children. My children, like yours, are wonderful, divine, cherubic, intelligent, etc. They are also too loud, too uptight about details (“You know I said just jelly, not peanut butter and jelly!”), too much in so many ways that I have banned them from the gardens except on major holidays. I let these children into my bed, into my bath, into my heart; I just don’t want them in my garden. There I want the promised peace of God, that I am just as I am, without one plea or peanut butter sandwich or pastoral word.
The garden rewards these spiritual desires. The quiet pushes a button in me that allows another channel to tum on. It is not the channel of the grocery list or the deacon’s agenda or the children’s intra-psychic affairs. I don’t hear the rich and welcome static of my husband’s jealousies about the prominence of those other channels. Nobody even knows the channel is on. They think I am thinning the lettuce or picking cucumbers. The garden is a vestment: I put it on to shelter the prayer.
Prayer is any awareness of the presence of God, or so someone wiser than me said. In the garden I am usually on my knees, turned in to station God. Wasn’t it nice, God will say, that you didn’t look at your watch or do errands instead of taking your morning garden walk? What an accomplishment! Making like a human being instead of a clock is such an accomplishment. Congratulations God will say, and it will be exactly the opposite of what everyone else said. When you were late for the meeting, because you stole the errand time from the meeting time, nobody praised you. When the mail and messages stacked up on the kitchen counter like planes over LaGuardia, nobody said congratulations on your pleasant walk. They presented their poverties. You presented your walk. Some understood; most did not. The awareness that God is not greedy in the same way that human beings are greedy is like the magnificence of the lettuce. It approaches the way the cucumbers play hide and seek in their dangling glory. These are matters of wonder.
Wonder needs reminders. And that’s why I need gardens and why winter is such a burden. Without frequent reminders that God is not greedy, and therefore I too may for short intervals release the grip that greed has on my life, I am a candidate for guilt trips imposed by meetings and children. I do not choose the oppression of the clock nor even the oppression of other people’s need of me: I choose lettuce, cucumbers, and peace.
The bittersweet is a warning. It may have bright color but it frightens, in that same science fiction way that Spanish moss does. It portends winter and the long silence of the God you know how to find.
The obvious solution to this fear of the bittersweet is to learn other channels. Maybe meditation or yoga. Perhaps a lock on the bedroom door and an accident happening to the bedroom telephone.
Then again I could just let winter be and not allow it to become another problem which requires of me another solution. I could pierce my heart with the bittersweet the way others pierce their ears with its likeness. I could let it adorn me, let its warning be part of the wisdom I wear as a person. It warns that anxiety is to peace as winter is to summer, in need of each other, somehow even friendly. It joins all the great religions in proclaiming the partnership of opposites, the release of joy from sorrow and sorrow from joy. Oddly, I rest in the summer while the garden is working. In the winter, it rests while I percolate. Is percolation another form of prayer? The bittersweet is legendary out here; likewise its lessons. ❖