In the village where my parents live and where I grew up from around the age of fourteen, there’s a big, big old house down by the sea, set back from the little lane via a long, winding driveway lined with trees.
It was first built as a house for the Sharp family in the 1920s (Greywalls), much later became a school (Ridgeway Park), and finally was left empty and became derelict before it was more recently sold off in three plots to private owners.
Because it’s located in probably the most special place on the planet to me, right by the rocky coves of Morecambe Bay where I frequently sit and watch the sun set and contemplate life, the universe, and everything, I’ve passed that house a thousand times or more. And every time, I’ve wished I could see inside.
This weekend, that wish was (semi) granted. The Landscape Trust had teamed up with one of the new owners to offer a tour around the gardens which, I learned, had been designed by Thomas Mawson – a landscape architect who, over the course of his life, earned considerable recognition for his beautiful work and whose designs can be seen in many of the parks and gardens of both Cumbria and Lancashire.
As we gathered outside a little wooden door in one of the extraordinarily tall garden walls, the current owner gave us an introduction and, despite my mini excursion into history over the last few paragraphs, this is really where I was leading…
The garden had been left entirely unattended over the years and not surprisingly, become completely overgrown. He explained that they had been working on it for the last two years and were little by little making progress. But here’s what he said that really caught my attention:
‘You can’t just go in with a garden like this and start tearing things out – everything would die off. You’ve got to go slowly and allow the secrets of the garden to reveal themselves to you.’
They could have ended the tour right there and then I would have been infinitely satisfied, finding that one little phrase endlessly beautiful and insightful.
We do tend to go crashing around inside our own lives, don’t you think? Wanting and trying to ‘sort everything out’ right away. Wanting things to be better than they seem to be right now. To have all the answers. To know exactly where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.
But I don’t think life is like that. It is a vast, vast unknown. A complete mystery in every way. A journey that reveals itself and its secrets to us moment by moment and step by step.
It reminds me of this passage from Parker J. Palmers’s Let Your Life Speak:
‘How we are to listen to our lives is a question worth exploring. In our culture, we tend to gather information in ways that do not work very well when the source is the human soul: the soul is not responsive to subpoenas or cross-examinations. At best it will stand in the dock only long enough to plead the Fifth Amendment. At worst, it will jump bail and never be heard from again. The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.
The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the wildness we seek.’
When we make demands on life, try to force, manipulate or go too fast, we’re more likely to destroy rather than discover the beauty. Instead, we have to learn the language of the soul and then give it the space to speak, in its own time.
That language is one of stillness, of patience, of trust and respect. I imagine the owner of this garden simply sitting there, watching and waiting in the still and quiet. And in his infinite love and respect for this magnificent space, he is happy to wait until the garden speaks, revealing its next secret and the direction for him to go.
The problem most of us suffer from is a wild resistance to sitting in the stillness and silence. We’ve been told doing nothing makes us lazy or that it’s a waste of time if we’re not ‘getting on with something’. But it’s only lazy or a waste of time if you don’t understand the means through which life communicates. Once you begin to experience the way secrets and messages are revealed in quiet contemplation, perhaps doing nothing becomes the most valuable thing of all.
Don’t get stuck thinking it has to look a certain way – like sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion (although there’s nothing wrong with that) – but rather find a way of being in stillness and quiet that works for you. For me, quietly walking through the woods, sitting by the sea or listening to the birds are all wonderful. And so, too, is sometimes sitting down on a chair in my living room. Or on my yoga mat. It can change every day, you don’t have to tie yourself to a rigid practice unless that’s what feels good.
Just be still and let your soul speak.
Love and courage,