When Resilience is Your Only Option...

healing resiliency Jun 12, 2012

How to be Resilient...Even When Life Takes You Down
Use gifts of nature to discover the power of resilience and how you can handle anything that comes your way

My friend, Jody Weiss, and her father, Al, gardened together. They set aside that time for each other. The time was well spent with father and daughter, in synchronicity, tilling the soil and their love for each other. Their reward…the most magnificent blooms, and the most delicious vegetables, from which we all enjoyed.

I remember the year my husband, David, and I were having a large dinner party for a new show he was doing. It was a Sci-FI show called “Sliders,” starring Jerry O’Connelland my dear friend, Cleavant Derricks (a true star in my eyes, as he had won the Tony for “Dream Girls” on Broadway).

David was the new Executive Producer of the show and it was a gathering of producers, writers, and actors. These evenings were spent in vibrant, creative conversations and often gave birth to many new story lines and characters for the shows. It was the part of show business I really enjoyed!

I also loved cooking, creating the table setting, and designing the ambience. To do it well was my gift to my husband and my friends; the gift to myself was basking in the glow of knowing I provided an evening to be remembered.

I set our long dining table with silver candelabras, my treasured china, my Grandmother’s silver, and David’s grandmother’s gold-rimmed crystal goblets. I was the keeper of family heirlooms and cherished each and every one, as they held stories of our past, and that of our ancestors.

I snipped flowers for the table from the front yard. I held a basket of mint sprigs and gladiolas that popped up in early spring. As I searched the yard for more color, my friend Jody drove up the circular driveway with a huge smile on her face.

She hopped out of her Suburban and threw open the back hatch. She carefully lifted out a gargantuan yellow sunflower, 7 feet tall! She had pulled it from the earth, roots and all!

“This is for you!” she blurted out.

“What? It’s beautiful! What should I do with it?”

Jody said, “It’s for your dinner table tonight!

“But I don’t think I have a seven foot vase!” I laughed.

Come on…I’ll show you,” she replied as she moved toward the front steps holding the flower and I held the ball of roots.

Jody guided us into the dining room and carefully placed the giant sunflower right down the center of my table, from end to end. It was glorious! It brought whimsy, sunlight, and aliveness to my table dressed with antiques!

That was Jody. She created delight from the toil of her garden.

Jody’s love of her garden has taught me a lot over the years, especially in the darkest hours of my life.

Those dark hours came when I experienced my greatest tragedy. I lost my beautiful 16-year old boy suddenly to a rare form of meningitis.

Nothing evokes a more profound life change than loss. When it’s a child, it’s called “the worst that can happen." And if it’s your child, you’ve entered a very remarkable group of people on the planet, who know how it feels to have chapters of your life ripped away. Not only are the present and future changed, so is the past.

Suddenly, those beautiful, joyful memories of my child’s early years were painfully colored by the aura of loss. The death of a child changes every chapter of your book of life. The chapters are suddenly chaotic and broken apart. It defies the natural order of life. My child left this earth before me, and for that, I was forced to create a whole new way of existence.

The grief creeps upon life like a moss that shrouds the darkest forests. It’s black and suffocating, with no light piercing through the heavily laden branches. I looked to my faith, my friendships, and my family for light. I relied on them to guide me to the light when I couldn’t see the way.

While trying to make sense of something that cannot be understood, I held myself close to those people who brought me peace and comfort. Jody was one of those.

In March of the year of grief, Jody encouraged me to experience the cycles of life in another way… opening my heart with the task of creating.

She gave me two books that I treasure to this day. The first, “Women Who Run With the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estés,Ph.D. was my awakening to the value of getting my hands in the dirt. The author says the cycle of nature is “Life/Death/Life.”

I studied the book with a yellow highlighter in hand as it revealed how carefully nature is choreographed, without any effort at all, but by the divine hand of God.

We think life is all about control, planning, chance, and some luck. What unexpected circumstances reveal to us, however, is the plan born to us by the very nature of being God’s child.

Jody encouraged me to plant a garden. She thought I could begin the healing process through the lessons of nature.

I had over an acre of land in Westlake Village set against the backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains. We had a forest of oaks, pine, and ficus trees covering the property, and even a babbling creek.

The second book Jody gave me, “She Who Loves a Garden,” by Mary Engelbreit was inscribed with the thought My dear friend, Sandy, No one, not even God, will ever take your garden away. With love, Jody.

In this tiny, whimsical book, it says, “She who loves a garden learns the lessons of the seasons and how life itself adheres to nature’s plan.”

There’s a saying, “When a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around, does it make a sound?” What about my forest?

Inexplicably, the very morning of my son’s memorial service, one of our massive oak trees fell. Two hundred years of standing majestically on this land, the tree just tipped right out of the ground and died.

That fallen ancient oak was my son’s silent song as hundreds of people gathered at the church two miles away to honor his life. Don’t try to explain it. It’s timing was an act of nature more powerful than the human mind can comprehend.

I needed to plant the garden where the oak tree fell. I had the tree service cut the massive 200-year old trunk into huge stepping-stones. I made the pathways through the garden in the shape of an oak tree with sprawling branches. At the entrance I placed a wrought iron arbor and planted pink climbing tea roses around it.

It had to be a rose garden. After all, my first published book was “Rosey…the Imperfect Angel.” It’s a children’s fairy tale about a little angel who is born with a face that’s different than all the other angels. Little Rosey was assigned the task of tending a rose garden in Heaven. Through her hard work, tears, love, and ultimate joy, she had the garden that represented all nature had to offer.

You see, my own daughter, Julianne, was born with a cleft, and my desire to introduce her into the world with a very different face gave birth to the story.

The rose represents resilience. In the winter, roses are cut back to sticks and stripped of leaves. The bushes weather the frost, and somehow manage to bloom every spring, no matter what.

As my garden took shape, my wonderful circle of friends began bringing me roses of every kind. I would open my front door in the morning, and there would be another rose bush, waiting to be planted in what I called “Garrett’s Garden.”

Children would make wind chimes and colorful signs; others would bring bird baths, fountains, and tools for nurturing the garden. Garrett’s pediatrician, brought a huge plum tree.

I carefully labeled each plant, documenting who gave it to me, and what day it arrived.

My children often helped me dig, pull weeds and plant. I loved it. It was joyful! I felt connected to Garrett as I tended the garden.

For my birthday, I bought myself a swinging bench. My husband and I would sit on it many weekend afternoons and find solace amongst the roses. We found joy, sometimes laughter as we recalled so many wonderful memories.

Through the process over the years, I learned how to get my hands dirty, how to control aphids with lady bugs and a forceful spray of the hose, how to fight the gophers by filling their holes with water, how to keep rabbits away with blood meal, and how to shoo away the graceful deer (who looked to my garden for dessert) with an electronic sound machine (it worked just sometimes).

Ahhh, the cycles of life, I was learning that all forms of life offer challenges and ultimately to accept what I couldn’t control. My garden brought me peace and was a place to bury my sorrow.

I remember two years after my son died, a friend called to tell me how happy she was that her son was accepted to college. She had every right to her joy. I attempted to express happiness, but hung up the phone, and burst into tears.

Why couldn’t it be my son going to college?

I ran to my garden and dug furiously in the dirt. My hands were white from gripping the trowel like a weapon and hitting rocks and roots from the nearby oak tree. My tears watered the ground beneath me. I snagged my arm on a thorn and blood dripped to the earth.

A quiet little voice cut through the tears, “Mommy….do you want some help?” I turned to see my 5-year old daughter holding a huge trowel in her tiny little hands. My little “Rosey,” tended to her Mommy in the rose garden. We finished digging the hole together and planted the fragrant rose bush called “Double Delight.” My spirit began to heal.

Every year was a new beginning, as I cut back the roses in winter and knew, without a doubt, they would bloom again. I could hold God and nature, responsible for losing my blooms to the deer, the gophers, the rabbits, and the aphids. Ultimately He would give me an opportunity to start again in the spring as the tender leaves sprout from the brown stumps, and deeply planted bulbs would send shoots up through the dirt, hardened by the cold of winter.

I suffered the greatest tragedy a mother could imagine, and I survived in part by digging in the dirt. Saying you’re a survivor implies you have fought a war when in reality you experienced the cycles of life that nature had planned for you all along.

My garden is one of triumph.

I offer you a new way to traverse the challenges that life gives you in the following exercises.

Using Nature to Heal Life’s Challenges
  • Consider Planting a Garden. From your list of friends, find the one friend who has a green thumb. Ask them to help you plant a garden.
  • Watch for the Gifts! Once you start your garden, and you let your friends know, and I promise you will begin to receive plants, bushes, wind chimes…all kinds of things for your beautiful garden!
  • Make a sign or have a plaque or a stone made to designate this as your special garden.I had a large beautiful stone etched with “Garrett’s Garden.” You could also name it something like “Transition” or “Finding Peace.
  • If you don’t have the space for planting a garden, set aside a place on your deck or your porch to grow potted roses. Roses come with many beautiful names, like "Peace, "Love," "Forever." Choose names that mean something to you.
  • Water features offer sounds of peace flowing. Even the smallest fountain makes a peaceful sound.
  • Care for your plants, nurture them, prune them, watch them sprout, bloom, change, and wither, only to come back again.
  • If you don’t want to plant, give yourself a gift of buying flowers at the grocery store or flower stand. They will brighten your home and your spirit. Remember, flowers awaken and soothe your spirit with their gifts of color, beauty and glorious scents.

When you sit in your garden, begin to recognize miracles in the gifts of nature. Open your eyes and your heart to all that lies before you. Listen to the bird singing you a song. Listen to the trickling water as a harp for your heart, and allow the sky to hold you in its embrace.

Those are the miracles that taught me life does indeed have good cycles and tragic cycles; and yet from it, rebirth emerges. The challenges and sorrows are just as important as the joys and the glorious blooms in shaping your garden of life. Resilience lies somewhere, deep inside our souls, ready to spring forth from the roots of tragedy. When we emerge, it opens us to the glory of a life fully lived.