I have a few minutes to spare because I am going to get some help in the garden today. And help is not just the extra pair of hands, it is also the company, and the ability to say to the other person: “What do you think about this?”, “Does that look good there?”, etc. I usually get an answer, although nobody who might be helping me (shanghaied children, basically) really gives two hoots about any of it. They are pretty much just humoring me, but I garden alone so much that even being humored feels so convivial!
Anyway, when I was working in the garden last evening I had an experience that I often have which is that I was hurrying. I don’t especially like the feeling of hurrying. It is sort of breathless and a little anxious. I especially don’t like it when it has no meaning, which it hardly ever does in the garden. If your child’s leg is broken, by all means hurry to the hospital. If the bird feeder is out of food and the birds are looking hungry and confused (yes, I am certainly anthropomorphizing), then hurry to them with more seed and suet. If it is hot and you are dizzy and getting tunnel vision, hurry up and drink that water. And for heaven’s sake pay the water bill on time. But don’t hurry in the garden. Hurrying implies that the present activity is just a passage to the next activity or outcome, and that, to me, is the antithesis of what gardening is about. There is no destination. If you try to establish one you will be foiled. The garden will be perfect, and then that big maple will come down in a storm and all your lovely shade plants will be burnt to a crisp the next time the sun comes out. Voles will uproot the perennials, elk will trample the azaleas, dogs will pee on the boxwood. There is always some disaster lurking out there just waiting for your back to be turned. So the only solution is to live utterly in the moment. There are people who certainly work towards a fixed goal. Cancer researchers must really want to eliminate cancer, although generations of them have had to content themselves with finding pieces of the puzzle only. In the Sixties NASA’s goal was to get to the moon, not to just be in the moment. President Obama must dream nightly of the heavens opening and a trillion dollars pouring into the Treasury (although that would probably be inflationary). But gardeners are not those people.
Every time I get this “must hurry, must hurry” feeling I stop myself and wonder what it is I think I am hurrying towards. It is usually another task just as prosaic as the one I am performing at the moment. And then I always realize that, actually, this moment is the destination. I am not curing cancer, ending war or alleviating human suffering. I am doing something essential to myself only. It can be appreciated by others, and I do like other people to find beauty and serenity here, but it is really for me. And every aspect of it is as essential, or inessential, as every other aspect of it. In hurrying, therefore, I am not actually accomplishing anything of any merit, I am only obliterating the moment that I am in. I am failing to be present in that moment, the only one I truly have, of my own life. The past is gone, the future endlessly uncertain. But we do have now, and we can try to experience it, and utilize it, as fully as possible. That includes being completely present in the task we are performing, and also being open to all the other experiences possible at the same time, the feel of the wind, the scent of the plants and earth (sometimes around here with a top note of skunk for piquancy), the quality of the light, its color, depth and richness. I find that if I truly do all that, then all the baggage from inside the house falls away. I stop worrying about the mortgage, the kids’ grades, the conflict in Afghanistan, or the likelihood of a 9 point earthquake. Maybe there just aren’t any neural pathways left for the negative stuff if I am doing all that at once. Whatever the reason, the outcome feels like grace, and, other than ending war, curing cancer or alleviating human suffering, it is hard to imagine a better result in life.