My submission to the Story Circle Network writing contest won second place. The topic was “solitude”. Here it is:
Waltzing Alone in the Garden
by Debra Davis, Cle Elum WA
“Gardening is an instrument of grace.” —May Sarton
Right now it is nearly dark, windows open to the midsummer twilight. Cool air filters into the house after a humid overcast day. Traffic sounds, voices, wind chimes reach my ears.
Wilted flowers were carried out to the compost pile earlier today, and no fresh ones were brought in. Only the ‘Escargot’ begonia in its terra cotta pot and a jumble of pine cones decorate the table across the room from my writing corner. I’ll gather flowers for the house in the morning. Like the poet May Sarton, I like to look up at a bouquet while writing in my journal.
My hands are clean but roughened from a day in the garden. This morning I climbed into a faded pair of work pants and a soft old T-shirt, clipped the curls up off my neck, slipped my feet into flip-flops and stepped out the open door. Sunshine poured into the garden, brightening the colors and textures and burgeoning life. Billows of purple catmint enticed honeybees to sip at the tiny tubular flowers. Bees made golden sparks around the hive, single-minded in their travels to and fro. The first peach-colored poppy has opened, and other fat buds are near to bursting. Penstemons, creamy daisies, bright clove pinks, lamb’s ears, lavender—all flowering now or promising to bloom soon. I walked under the arbor, pleased by the arching canes of the ‘New Dawn’ rose and the tangle of honeysuckle. Stately gold and purple irises leaned toward the path, where my feet were cushioned by a mat of fragrant woolly thyme.
This is my creation, my refuge. The garden began as my solace after the divorce seven years ago. As my hands dug and sifted the weedy compacted soil, flowers and food grew in my wake. A little at a time, structure appeared in the form of raised beds and pathways. Plants were salvaged from other places, brought home from my gramma’s yard, thoughtfully selected from catalogs. Some didn’t make it. Some did too well, and the tapestry of plants continues to evolve and change. A couple years ago, the garden held me when I came home from the hospital after heart failure. Too weak to dig or plant, all I could do was rest out there. That spring Nashville warblers came back to sing in the pussywillow tree while I convalesced in the sunlight. As the days passed I grew stronger. In tending the garden, I tended myself. By allowing the kind of unbidden growth that accepts violas and larkspurs traveling randomly around the garden, so too did I allow new ideas and feelings take root. As my heart healed, it opened.
I am alone but not lonely. I am a woman who is not afraid of her own company. Drawn to wild places since childhood, I’ve spent a lifetime outdoors. Solitude is not the same as isolation, as I learned on a lookout tower in the Idaho mountains. The nearest human habitation was fifty miles away on bad roads. Creatures of all sorts came and went on that mountaintop, from flies buzzing at the windowpanes to mountain goats below, and once a large owl that circled the tower one evening at dusk. Air was always in motion, and wind sang in the guywires. Since those times in my twenties, I have perched alone on remote peaks in the Cascade Range to watch wildfires and weather, grand panoramas unfolding moment by moment. Even then I’ve never been completely cut off, since a two-way radio connects me to the voices of other humans. I may not see anyone for days, but I talk and listen.
The solitude of creative work is familiar. It calls to me just as the mountains call to me. The making of paintings and prose comes from a source deep within myself, and I have not yet found a way to share this experience with another person. Generating words and images is solitary and rarely exact. I go out and come back much like a honeybee, finding a route to the flower and coming back drunk on the pollen of mystery. There is no way to understand or explain how or why this is, so I have stopped trying.
And I have known the withdrawal into the dim fog of depression, disappearing so completely that those around me don’t even know I’m gone. This is the deepest most mysterious wilderness of all, the slippage of time and space and self. It goes beyond solitude. It is separation, isolation, desolation. I feel it most in the winter, when the garden lies dormant under a frozen blanket of snow and the bees are huddled deep in their hive. Slowly the earth tilts back toward the sun and as spring returns, so do I.
This is the waltz we dance all of our lives, the one-two-three slide while leaning into the arms of Intimacy or Solitude. We are always dancing between spending time with self and spending time with others. We can’t help but follow the rhythm and tempo of our own unique song. We hear the symphony of seasons, the music of stardust and sunlight. We go away and we come back. For some of us, the ballroom needs to be a big place and there must be doors that open to the outside.
I could not begin to draw a map of my thoughts as I spend the day waltzing alone in my garden. My hands are busy plucking weeds, smoothing soil, wielding tools. I kneel to lean forward, then rock back on my heels. A flutter of wings in the cherry tree catches my eye. The cat strolls out from his nap spot to stretch and roll in the dirt. Fresh lettuce for my supper salad crosses my mind. When to stake the tomato plants? Who will water the garden for me in two weeks when I go to the wilderness for my job? How is it to be 52 years old, a solo woman living in a small house in a small town, growing a garden? Is this enough? What does it mean for this to be enough? What does it feel like to stand in my integrity, to live my truth in the world?
It must feel a lot like this. Even though I am not at this moment relating to another human being, I feel completely connected and present. Perhaps it’s true that feeling separate from the world is an illusion. Where does this garden stop and I begin?
A swallowtail butterfly alights on a penstemon and delicately probes a slender blue tube, I pull a radish and carry it into the house. There will be salad for supper, and time to scrub my hands and dirty toes. Time to watch the bees in the long evening as swallows scissor the air in graceful loops above the house. And then time to come inside and write.
The song never ends, nor does the waltz.