Sometimes, however, you can force me to watch or read a book or movie for children. This is how I ended up watching the first Harry Potter movie, Toy Story, and Shrek–all of which I will shamelessly admit that I loved after I ended up seeing them. However, it takes some prodding to get me to the point where I deign lower myself to give it a chance. Such is the situation that occurred when my friend Sue shoved the classic book The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett into my hands and insisted that I borrow it to read. “Eh, no,” I thought. “I’ll be bored silly.”
Because it was borrowed and not given to me, I had a sense of obligation to read it so that I could get it back to her and you can’t give someone a book back that you haven’t even attempted to read. So it was obligation, at first, that guiltily prodded me to pick the book after I spent too many months rereading The Mists of Avalon. After a book as huge and intricate as The Mists of Avalon, I needed to take a break with something light.
I had a religious experience reading this book. Simply, The Secret Garden is the story of two young children who are victims of an adult world into which they never fit: a young girl named Mary Lennox, neglected by her parents and unloved; and the boy, Colin Craven, whose likeness to the mother who died giving birth to him pushes his father further into his own misery and grief. Both children, neglected, are left like wilting flowers without sunlight in a garden overrun by weeds.
The story begins when Mary’s entire household is wiped out by a plague and she’s sent to live with her only remaining relative, her uncle Mr. Craven. On some level, I could relate to the character of the uncle, despite the fact that he has very little face time in the book itself; it’s the descriptions of him from the other characters that paints a picture of sorrow I know too well. It’s very easy to let yourself slip into grief’s embrace and stay there. After all, it’s the stuff of what the movie What Dreams May Come inspires (and, I admit, I had a lot of trouble watching that movie–it was like a mirror of sorrow in my face and I think I watched it too soon after my husband died).
The children bring the glimmer of hope into this dead world the adults have created. Mary discovers the key to the late Mrs. Craven’s garden–the garden in which she died and Mr. Craven had locked and made forbidden to enter. Mary falls in love with the garden and has this calling to put it back in order and bring the life back to it. Soon, she brings others in on her scheme. First, the young Dickon, animal charmer and brother of the maid who takes care of Mary. Eventually, Mary finds the cloistered Collin Craven and lets him in on the secret as well. The three children sneak off to the Secret Garden every afternoon and, like the plants they take care of, they grow strong, bud, and bloom full as each day passes. Of course, by the end of the book, they’ve brought the life back into the lives of the adults around them.
It’s just a very beautiful story of renewal. Instead of using an deity-specific lingo, the book uses “Magic” to describe the spiritual experience, the wonderful oneness one experiences with nature. At moments, the wording invoked in the spiritual practice of the children–who experiment with healing themselves through the positive energy of “good” Magic–is exactly on par with how I experience spirituality and, especially, in its connection with nature (which are the only moments in which I have had true spiritual experiences, moments of elation and understanding of the universe greater than myself). I found myself mentally marching around the Secret Garden with the children, chanting, “The sun is shining–the sun is shining. That is the Magic. The flowers are growing–the roots are stirring. That is the Magic. Being alive is the Magic–being strong is the Magic. The Magic is in me. It is in me–it is in me. It’s in everyone of us.” (Chapter 23)
In the months after Mike died, I found myself doing quite a bit of hiking. It was the one thing I could do that always made me feel a little better. I am sure the endorphins from the exercise helped. But the main reason I did the hiking was probably similar for the same reasons a person might visit a church in a time of emotional turmoil–to get away from all the distractions of the world to think, to pray, to reconnect with life. For me, the outside world is my temple. It has been so since the day I first crossed my first mountain summit–Mt. Marcy in the NY Adirondacks– with Mike at my side, and witnessed the Magic as I sat with a couple dozen fellow hikers gathered on the football-field sized summit, soaking in the sun of that beautiful May day. We were priests and priestess of the sun in that moment.
When I would go out for a hike, I found clarity if only for a few hours. I could focus only on my labored breathing and get lost in the moment of exertion and not think at all; or, I could sit amongst the trees and inhale the precious clean air and contemplate the depth and sorrow of my loss. With each breath in, I could feel my small position in the grand universe and I felt at one with the world around me. Sometimes I imagined I could talk to Mike. Sometimes I imagined I could scream my anger at the Divine about the disparaging unfairness and cruelty of life. There was something very ritualistic and spiritual about my hikes. Especially since hiking was an activity both Mike and I enjoyed in our time together. In a way, it was the best way I could reconnect with him.
It’s no wonder that when I thirsted for spiritual comfort, I turned to paganism for awhile. I had a friend who practiced Druidic paganism and I would attend the rituals of at her grove. Pagan rituals involve meditation and they take place outdoors–both of which attracted me greatly. It was a cleansing experience too. I had some true inspired moments during these rituals where I connected with the Divine. In the end, though, this raised-Catholic-turned-atheist-turned-searcher had trouble believing in one god let alone a pantheon of them… So my spiritual quest turned elsewhere. But the experience taught me that my true place of worship is the silent sanctuary of the world outside.
In my life as one who loves the outdoors, I have experienced many sights that have awakened within me a great, aching awe. When I have these moments–and they are so few–I’m filled with such love for life and everything in it that I have this urge to hug myself. Or hug it all. I never know which it is. I just want to hug, touch, emote. At that grand moment, my soul is complete. This beautiful passage from the book describes the thrill of that moment of finding myself in that moment of Divine inspiration:
One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender, solemn dawn time and goes out and stands alone and throws one’s head far back and looks up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvellous unknown things happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone’s eyes.
I’ve felt like this, experienced the definitive certainty that even if there is no life after life–even if your soul goes nowhere–you do live on forever and ever and ever. The particles that make your body are reabsorbed into the universe and you are born again as something else–person, animal, plant, tree, stars. We are, as they say, stardust. And to me that’s an even more beautiful thing than eternal life in a heaven of souls. Somewhere out there, I always think, from the lifelessness of Mike’s body new life has formed. Somewhere, just beyond my reach perhaps, he continues.
Nature has a way of renewing not just itself but those within it who have managed to separate themselves from it. Like the children in this book, I fumbled my way back into life by wandering for awhile in the silent sanctuary of some wood-covered road in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I sat beneath trees and felt the breeze pat my cheek reassuringly. If there was anything that my life with Mike taught me it was to appreciate this great, wonderful world we’ve been momentarily given to live upon. Born from the earth, we all return to the earth. Born from the earth, I could only heal in her arms.
The Secret Garden is the happiest book I’ve read all year and a welcome break after the rather somber ending of The Mists of Avalon (though, I do not understate that I love The Mists of Avalon–why else would I read it not once, but twice?) If only real life could always be so uplifting! I’m sure there was a bunch of Christian allegories one could make in this book (Dickon = Jesus figure?) but I’m too inept and unstudied to have found them. I did love the philosophy stated multiple times that Magic was as good a name for the Divine as any other… Magic is a word I can understand.