1. What would it look like to do a good job at my garden? I’ve tried, and the lettuce is good. Everything else is sort of OK or dying.
My friend E has this magic with land, plants, gardening that I don’t have—but is it magic, exactly, or a green thumb, or years of acquired knowledge? Is there a difference? Does knowledge built up over years + joy = magic?
Poet Alexis Pope writes: a ritual is what / I make happen for myself.
Is a garden I make happen a ritual, a magic, a simple capacity? Or can I master it if I work hard enough?
2. I’m curious about effort, and about management. My hair is unmanageable right now, which I guess means I do not have mastery over it, and even when I try to care for it, it does not look like magic has touched it.
The French gardener, botanist, and writer Gilles Clément, known for his design of public parks, writes: All management generates an abandoned area.
Clément suggests that by choosing one area to manage we automatically lose the rest. If my hair were manageable, would that mean I forfeit management of something else in my life? How many parts of me can I control, and what gets left out? How many things can we manage at once?
This feels relevant always, these days, when my days feel full of an endless to-do list, when something is always poking up that needs managing and I never arrive at the bottom of my inbox. I feel compelled to believe there is a limited amount of management that can be done at one time. I feel a potential for forgiveness there, in the belief that we can’t manage it all.
I feel that way with my body also, when if it isn’t my unruly hair it’s acne or chipping nails or dirty laundry. My female body that has been taught it has to be managed to be visible, to be appropriate.
My maintenance of my hair, nails, and so on—these are choices that I make, but when I maintain them, am I abandoning other women who don’t? Am I enforcing the idea that their bodies are more abandoned than mine?
All management generates an abandoned area.
Clément is writing ecologically, referring to wild landscapes versus developed spaces, but we can extend his ideas to humans managing themselves and managing their lives. In times when our lives feel unmanageable, what things must we abandon in order to manage?
And: what would it be like not to manage? What would it be like to carefully choose what we can’t manage?
3. An abandoned area. Part of my garden is abandoned. I tried but failed to seed borage and catnip there—failed, perhaps because the roots of the giant tree and the invasive oxalis already “manage” that area, but—I abandoned it. Spiny plants with red flowers that I don’t recognize grow in there, mostly, oddly, in the shaded areas. The area that I carved out of the yard as a garden bed remains mulched, but grasses are encroaching along the edges.
I’m a beginning gardener, and so I’m not sure exactly what to do. All I know is that I want to be in control of this garden bed. I listen to my meditation teachers reminding me to have a beginner’s mind, for the sake of openness, for the sake of joy. How can I succeed at being a beginner?
My first impulse when I notice my lack of mastery is to give in completely—to say, Forget it, let the grasses come in, let the wild mustards win, give in, give in, for I am no master of this space. To say, I cannot do this at all if I can’t manage it completely.
But I want to try, which is a foreign concept for those of us who love control. I want to put forth some effort and continue to try despite what already exists in my garden, to put forth effort even if I can’t control it all.
The celebrated Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein writes: Right effort creates energy.
This is difficult for me to believe. I am often afraid of effort, afraid that I will be drained by it or afraid of effort that results in failure. I need not be afraid of effort if it will create energy, but in many ways this idea is new to me.
Perhaps in part it’s gendered. I believe I am small and effort will erase me. I fear my own weakness and expect myself not to be capable.
But I also want to dominate: I’ve been taught that I’m responsible for controlling my body and my environment, for subjugating them to my ever-powerful human will. Though I am learning otherwise, I often perceive any failure as my own fault of effort, rather than the fault of the conditions around me.
Joseph Goldstein again: When awareness is established and mindfulness is happening by itself—what we could call effortless effort—then we can simply rest in the continuity of bare knowing.
“Rest.” To rest. I am often stunned by Buddhist instructions to “rest in awareness.” How can I rest if I am responsible for failure? I, who must manage or abandon, be managed or be abandoned?
I have a deeply conditioned belief that if I do not manage myself carefully I will certainly be unmanageable and will thus soon be abandoned. While I reject this belief intellectually, I still find myself thinking that my unmanaged state is not good enough on its own to deserve attention and care. The anxiety of this belief is a major part of what initially led me to Buddhism, to a set of values that instruct me to make the effort to rest.
In times when our lives feel unmanageable, what things must we abandon in order to manage?
And: what would it be like not to manage?
4. Most people have a question they ask spiritual teachers over and over again, and this is mine: How can I put forth effort and also rest?
I open Goldstein’s book to find an answer and come across this line: “abandon those unwholesome states that have already arisen.”
Abandon them. I love this position: that unwholesome states have already arisen and the work is to abandon them now, rather than to regret that they have arisen at all. To acknowledge deeply held beliefs, passing fantasies, unwholesome thoughts—and to abandon them.
According to Goldstein, abandoning means to choose to stop engaging with something; not to feel badly about it but to move on. It seems here that abandoning could be OK. Abandon: leave it behind. To abandon does not mean in this context that the life in something disappears, but that you let it move on without you.
Here the body and the garden grow close for me, again: if I could let go of the fantasy of control—let go as my body ages outside of my control, let go as the earth grows and fails and changes—could I then connect more to the body and the land? Could I then perceive more fully the agency of the garden, the agency of the body?
The poet Elizabeth Willis writes: to belong / to dirt, like a question.
Belonging like a question, being open to what is possible through me and what is possible outside of my control. A belonging that is also an abandoning: a belonging by release. I abandon, and so I open humbly to what could be.
5. To return to Clément: An ecological approach requires humility, requires knowing that whatever one chooses to manage, one will also lose, cede other areas. An ecological approach requires bowing, knowing that one can manage only one small piece. It requires allowing some parts of the earth to move on without us. It requires us to be humble as they move on, to acknowledge what is beyond our will.
And yet the question still rankles, still lingers for me whether this is laziness or right effort. How can one know? I try to ground myself again in Buddhist teachings: one must abandon things as they go, but stay present in the meantime. One is not abandoning reality, simply putting forward the effort required to stay present as other things relentlessly move on. It takes effort to pay attention as things go.
Writer Diane di Prima: how the flesh / adheres / in its / passing.
We humans adhere so well. We still really stick with these bodies. We stick with it. We say, “I admire your stick-to-it-iveness.” I’ve always wanted to be someone who sticks to it, sticks with it. Someone clear about her objectives, and determined to get them done no matter what.
So what do I stick to now, as I age, as the earth ages and we see how impossible it is to control its weathers and eruptions?
I think—as di Prima says, how the flesh / adheres / in its passing—that the passing itself is where I adhere. I stick to knowing the passing. I give way to loving people, loving communities, loving earth around me that will and does pass, will and does abandon us.
I think of twelve-step programs and how participants say, “We admitted that we were powerless over _____ , that our lives had become unmanageable. . . . ” My friend A tells me how much she loves this part, how acknowledging that things are unmanageable brings the saving grace of release, how that release itself is what allows addicts to change.
6. If all management generates an abandoned area, then we know that release is just around the corner. We know that we cannot manage all of our gardens, all of our bodies. We know they will all abandon us, be released from us whether we like it or not.
And so we can choose to know that this release is coming, instead of resisting knowing it. I once heard that the American Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein said of past events: “It could not have been otherwise.” The causes and conditions that lead to an event form its result, so it could not be otherwise. Our only choice is to release.
May we invite ourselves to this release. This is how my body is in this moment, this is how my garden is in this moment, and the causes and conditions working on both have led them to how they are right now. Neither is fully under my control, and so may I abandon control of them and begin again.
May we know we’ve been abandoned by the past, that the past has left us and moved on. So too have previous versions of our bodies left us, so too have previous iterations of the earth and its ecology left us.
To garden like an offering: only an attempt. To belong like a question belongs: only a door.
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