A personal essay on the healing power of gardens, inspired by centenarian author Diana Athill

Athill

For years, my dear friend Rayne has urged me to read the memoirs of Diana Athill, the 100-year-old former literary editor and writer who penned her first memoir at 83.

As the MD of a company that provides catering for old-age homes, and the South African representative for the Eden Alternative, an international non-profit dedicated to changing the way elders are cared for, ageing with dignity is something Rayne is passionate about.

I resisted, and I’m not really sure why (likely owing to some deep-seated ageism or denial of my own mortality). But last year, when I was house- and pet-sitting for Rayne and his partner, I saw his collection of her books in his study, and felt ready.

As I’m facing 40 – single, childless, and not too happy about the state of my personal life – I’m desperate to hear stories of older women who’ve lived full lives despite never being married, nor experiencing motherhood.

So, somewhat reluctantly, I picked up Somewhere Towards the End (Granta), Athill’s Costa-prize-winning account of ageing.

I read it in almost one sitting. (Well, sitting’s not the right word, TBH. I was sun-tanning, butt naked, in a secluded spot in the garden.)

What I read gave me some hope. I appreciated Athill’s frank and upbeat way with words, and her love of earthly pleasures, late into life. Her thoughts on the importance of gardens, and gardening, inspired me to write this personal essay for the Bulbophile magazine…

A GARDEN (NOT) OF ONE’S OWN

In 1929, Virginia Woolf said women needed spaces of their own from which to write. Thankfully, the world has changed, and many women do. But in these urbanised, stressful times, having access to a garden is a luxury that should be appreciated.

It needn’t be your own. I’ve realised this recently. As I’m facing 40 as a single, childless woman, it’s been a year of contemplation, most of which has happened in a garden friends have ‘loaned’ to me, when I’ve looked after their pets while they travel.

Aptly named Shalimar, like the famous Lahor gardens, the garden is large, private, forest-like. It’s high on the slopes of a narrow valley, with views of the mountains across. I’ve relished the refuge it has provided, and the opportunity it has given me to be completely alone in nature, safe.

Shalimar gardens

One weekend, I sunbathed and read a memoir by former publisher Diana Athill, in which she says a garden a relative let her tend was a source of immense pleasure later on in her life as a single woman.

There’s much to be said for the generosity of those happy to share their gardens. When you’re feeling stuck, a garden gives you ‘time out of time’. Gazing over living greenery lets your mind drift, segueing with the rhythms of nature – the dash of a squirrel there, the dart of a bird there. Away from city noises, you become attuned to the tweeps of sociable birds, the cries of the geese who’ve taken over the owl house… it’s a surround-sound start to each day.

Indulging my senses and exploring the garden’s features has eased my anxiety. I’ve sat with my back to the trunk of a large pine and inhaled the scent of its needles; touched translucent leaves; sampled the tastes of the herb garden; watched the sun shine through the fluffy bottle brush.

My imagination has been revived by little details: the fantasy world of a gnarled tree stump; the colourful inside of a granadilla a bird had feasted upon; the potent plumes of a spunky caterpillar. I’ve been charmed by a row of nasturtiums rising optimistically despite being dwarfed by the pines, and bushes of proudly South African pincushions, arranged like a gospel choir.

succulents

Moving within a living ecosystem, like a figurine in a terrarium, has given me perspective. One calm Sunday, one of the dogs killed a squirrel. The flowers I was admiring last week have since wilted in the extreme drought we’re having; but the succulents live on, strong. And it’s roaring with rain as I write. Just yesterday, we evacuated as a mountain fire burned dangerously close. I thought the garden would be razed to the ground. But it lives. As do the little duck chicks I’m watching follow their mother.

Marvelling at the brutality and beauty of if all, in one garden, tells me not to be too sentimental about life’s passages. This garden – this life – is only ever ours on loan.

pine tree and lemon tree

To sample Athill’s writing, read her short UK Guardian article on the pleasure of gardening here.

 

 

 

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Must-Read: The Finch in My Brain

Fan of triumph-over-tragedy medical memoirs? Check out this inspiring story, by a buddy of Russell Brand.

The finch in my brain Martino Sclavi

If you, like me, are a fan of ‘neuro memoirs’ like Brain on Fire, My Stroke of Insight, the work of the late Oliver Sacks, or just the tense surgical scenes of McDreamy working his medical magic on Grey’s Anatomy, you might want to read The Finch in My Brain: How I Forgot to Read but Found How to Live (Hodder & Stoughton), by Martino Sclavi.

Scali, an Italian-American film producer, credits his friend, the comedian Russell Brand, with saving his life. For a brief background, check out this YouTube video by Brand, in which he and other friends of the author talk about his story.

They remember him saying he wanted to “lie down and have a rest” while they were working on a film – something completely out of character for him. Brand talks about having to phone Sclavi’s family when he was going into emergency surgery (conducted while he was awake!), saying, “It was a bleak confrontation with mortality”.

So why the FINCH in his brain?

Martino Sclavi The Finch in my brain

Sclavi image from the author’s website.

Well, the grade-four tumour was apparently shaped like the bird. And while they cut most of it out, they also had to remove parts that enable him to read. Every reader’s worst nightmare, right?

But it’s not nearly as bad as the prognosis he received at the time: Doctors in both America and Italy said there was a 98% chance he’d die within a year and a half.

(That was something like six years ago. Oh, the miracle that is the human will to live!)

In an article in the UK Guardian, he says of the loss of his reading ability:

“It is a terrible loss. I was a film producer. Screenplays, the rights to books: my life depended on these things. But I don’t think grief is allowed: I was supposed to be dead, and I am alive.”

In spite of, or possibly because of, his prognosis, Sclavi wrote a book chronicling his medical journey, typing with his eyes closed and using audio software to have parts ‘read back’ to him as he progressed.

He told The Guardian:

“I started it just before the second operation because I was afraid I was going to die. I had been sending emails to old friends, and Matt Morgan [comedian and Brand sidekick] said to me: ‘This feels like gonzo journalism for oncology.’ I liked that, so I carried on … it saved me, psychologically.”

While the Guardian reviewer describes the memoir as “odd”, given the author’s condition and the fact that his first language is Italian, I’m going to decide for myself. My favourite books are those about real-life resilience, triumph over tragedy, and the “rage against the dying of the light”.

Give it a go and let me know what you think.

*BONUS: To get a feel for the book, check out the eccentric author, his friends, and his computer-voice ‘reading companion’, Alex, read from Chapter One here.

See a feather, pick it up: a walking meditation

On Thursday I walked to work, even though I was a little late. I’d woken later than planned, having failed to set off both of my alarms (yes, I need two).

I felt tender and weepy upon waking. Maybe because I’d wanted to run round the reservoir, do a breathing meditation, sort out some clothes before setting off etc etc. All heroic goals. Which I’d failed. #BadStart

I reached the bottom of my road – the spot where the homeless guy normally sits in the afternoons, feeding the pigeons. Like a lot of wandering drunks, he is split, Janus-like, between spirituous and sage: Some days he’s slumped over, too sozzled to talk. Others he’s as clear as a seer.

It was too early for the friendliest hobo, but on the ground in his place lay a perfect white feather.

feather on path

Image: Grant MacDonald, Flickr

I’m rather partial to a well-placed feather, so I picked it up. Don’t roll your eyes: I don’t necessarily believe a feather is a sign of a guardian angel nearby. For me, noticing natural beauty, like a feather, can be a cue to more conscious awareness; to being present to what can be seen (and what is unseen) around us. See, stop, think: What’s going on for me right now? And apart from the heavy stuff, holding on to such an ethereal object that’s reached such lofty heights lifts my spirit instantly.

Lungs illustration

The lungs as birdhouse to the soul? (Illustration is my Carmen Ziervogel, I think.)

I thought about my relationship to breath, my lungs. I thought about my sore throat. I could be getting sick. But I blame having had a few social smokes over the holidays, after months of not smoking.

I had my first cigarette at 11. Since then, it’s been an on-and-off affair.

When I was 23, I went to see a medical intuitive who used her intuition to “read” messages about her clients in their organs. When she got to my lungs, her eyes welled up. She explained that the lungs are where we hold our emotions. She said she felt my loneliness. I was lonely all right. My identical twin sister and I had just separated, traumatically, and were living in separate cities for the first time.

Two years ago, I saw another intuitive healer (a birthday gift from my twin) who uses a kind of biofeedback coupled with channelling. She saw distress in my lungs, actually advised a doctor. And said: “Our lungs are where we hold our grief. You may think smoking is helping with that. It may initially block those feelings, but in the end all it does is trap them there.”

Why do some people desire that feeling of smoke rushing in to their lungs, even after they’ve kicked the nitotine addiction, while others never even get beyond that first sputtering attempt at smoking?

Maybe it’s inter-generational. The lungs feature heavily on my paternal side, the Irish side. My father smoked when we were kids; had a bout of pleurisy. His father had a very drawn-out end, battling to breathe for years as a result of emphysema. By the time we knew him, he’d long given up the fags. It was hard to watch him struggle to breathe. But as a teen in denial of death, I was more drawn to his old silver cigarette case, as it was engraved with the initials he and I shared.

What more could be going on in the pleura paternus?

Psychosomatic Disorders in General Practice traces the long history of linking the interconnected health of the body and mind, from the Bible’s Book of Job to Plato, including the first use of the term “psychosomatic” in 1818, and tracks its development into an interdisciplinary empirical science.

The authors say that since the first cry is the first sign of life of a new individual in the world, breathing and autonomy are linked. “Grief reduces the depth of respiration, while happiness increases it; anxious people have superficial and irregular breathing and so on.” Above all, “psychosomatic medicine attempts to recognise a person’s ‘organ language’… as an expression of emotional phenomena.”

In Eloquent Body, doctor, poet and author Dawn Garish brings together the two streams of her life: the scientific, doctor self and the poetic, dancer-writer self, to show how the body is a “battleground for feuding narratives”… how the drive to life manifests in the body, through illness as well as through the act of creating. Since we hardly know ourselves, our symptoms give us feedback on how we are doing in the world. She argues for a more artistic reading of the human body. She mentions Carl Jung’s view, that the soul, being formless, must take its shape through the body. Similarly, the late archetypal therapist and scholar James Hillman’s view on the daemon – the life force that directs you on your journey – suggests it will resort to anything to get our attention.

Eye roll permitted here: Louise L Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life’s little table of signs says:
Lung problems mean depression, grief, fear of taking in life, feeling unworthy of life.
Emphysema and heavy smoking are ways of denying life. Some of her ideas seem drawn from Chinese medicine.

Even if the mind forgets,
The skin remembers;
The organs keep a record of their guests.
-Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, from ‘The Quiet Conversation’

I crossed the road at the Mount Nelson, head still down, wondering about whether my lungs are holding on to a sense of grief and loss. On the other side, on the pavement outside Bertram House, an A5 book covered in red fabric was propped up on its side, page flapping open like an bird about to take flight. One word in capital letters could be seen from my vantage point: “BEREAVEMENT”.

I picked it up.

It looked like a journal of study notes. I rifled through it quickly, aware of the passengers in the cars beside me, but long enough to get the just of it. It was about carers: Make sure carers are taking care of themselves, it said.

The day before, I’d read a moving post by a blogger friend about her 2015 resolution, which came as an epiphany brought about by a bout of illness: To be more selfish; to take more care of her self.

Her post reminded me of the words of Thomas Moore. In an interview to promote his book on the Soul of Medicine, he said:

Illness is not just a physical thing. It’s not just your body, as modernistic philosophy suggests. A human being is never just a body. A person really needs to take care of themselves emotionally and spiritually. If they don’t do that they’re liable to inhibit healing. Insufficient support and an unrealistic vision for themselves can also inhibit healing. It’s really important to go beyond the physical.Out of all that comes a deepening – not automatically – but a gradual deepening of their sense of who they are as a person. Illness is an opportunity to ask difficult questions. People ask what is important and what isn’t.

As I walked past the Michaelis School of Fine Art, I smiled at the beauty of a single morning’s walk. I looked at the ground beneath me and what did I see?

Another white feather to greet me.