What Is Your Sanctuary? (Because *Every* Parent Needs One)

zen monkey
The zen monkey who lives in my garden, a gift from my son Henry's godmother, who has been my BFF since we met on the first day on junior high.

And so, it seems that I am now a gardener.

I am increasingly comfortable describing myself that way — as “a gardener.”  I haven’t been at it that long, so in no way am I claiming to be an expert gardener, or even a very good gardener, but I am someone who gardens, who loves to dig in the dirt, and who is in thrall to plants and garden design and soil pH and all of that.  These days, I even listen to gardening podcasts on a regular basis. Surely that fact alone earns me some plant nerd cred.

Yep, I am now a gardener. I blogged earlier this summer about how the experience of growing my own garden has reawakened a sense of fun for me, something that had gone totally MIA in my life since I lost my son Henry two years ago; fun is an exceptionally tough thing to relocate after your worst imagined fear actually happens. Since I wrote that earlier blog post about finding fun among the flowers, and as I have continued to work on expanding and planting and cultivating my garden this summer, I have also continued to ponder the strong and steady pull that this patch of dirt seems to have on me now.

Yes, it’s fun. No doubt. But there’s something more to it. Why and how is it that I long to get outside and work in my garden whenever I feel overwhelmed in any direction? How is it that after 27 straight months of trying everything from transcendental meditation to grief-numbing medication to try to calm my stricken mind and shattered spirit that I am so readily able to slip into a zone of relaxed, yet steady focus simply by weeding and digging and watering? What’s up with that?

I couldn’t really figure it out until I had an aha moment a few weeks back while reading a lovely memoir by well-known gardener and garden blogger Margaret Roach. The book, titled, And I Shall Have Some Peace There, explores the author’s own multi-decade journey into the garden, and I found that in telling her story, Margaret Roach was able to articulate very clearly what it is about gardening that has been so helpful to me in settling my restless soul back into some sort of semi-working order.  While I couldn’t quite find the words myself to describe what gardening does for me, Margaret Roach did.

She writes:

“Even then, when I had no botanical Latin or any confidence in what I was doing, gardening had become my first moving meditation, my yoga…When I was weeding, I was really weeding…I as in it as if it were the motions of vinyasa… I admit it: I garden because I cannot help myself. …It is no wonder that so much of gardening is done on one’s knees, this practice of horticulture is a wildly humbling way to pass one’s days on Earth…To be a gardener is to come face to face with powerlessness….and to cultivate patience as actively as you do botanical things…I know only one thing for certain about gardening now, thirty years in: Things will die… The garden is where there’s no pretending that living things don’t die…When I was raking, I raked – in the moment of raking awareness, neither thinking in shoulda, coulda, woulda monkey mind, nor wandering into daydreams, past or future. Being truly at attention and one with the task; that sense of perfect union was what I’d not found anywhere else…”



Yes, exactly that is what gardening is like for me. That’s what I feel when I am among my plants, with time and space to dig and think and dig some more.

I now realize that the garden is both fun and fundamentally centering for me. It’s joy and contemplation and prayer and exercise for my body and muscles and mind and spirit, all rolled into one activity. And really, isn’t a combo like that  basically the holy grail of what we all need from at least some avocational activity in our lives? I think so. We all need the sanctuary of some time and space in our lives to do something that both energizes and heals us — a something that is just for us.

I am so grateful to have pretty much accidentally stumbled into my own sanctuary at a time in my life when I needed it (and still need it) so desperately. However, now that I have found it, I have realized  that even without the horrible trauma of having had one of my children die, I had gone too long denying myself the joy that a truly pleasurable and relaxing extracurricular passion offers. But I don’t think I am alone in having allowed myself to put my own need for time and space to to carve out my own sanctuary behind others’ needs. I see many if not most of my friends who have children at home doing the same thing. Dancers who become mothers quit dancing. Guys who meditated regularly before fatherhood stop sitting still long enough to breathe slowly, much less meditate. Runners no longer run, and passionate readers no longer find time to indulge in new fiction because they are too busy reading chapter after chapter of Harry Potter aloud at bedtime each night, after which these parent-readers collapse for the night themselves.

In my own case, I was an avid equestrian throughout childhood and teenagehood and into my first two years of college. I rode for fun, and I rode competitively, and I never in a million years imagined that beginning when I gave birth to my first baby in my early 20s I would then go two decades without regularly sitting in a saddle. But that’s what’s happened, even though riding had always been my sanctuary before I became a mother; it was the thing that gave me clarity and brought me back to center, even as it made me grin from ear to ear with sheer exhilaration every time I went over a jump.

I always assumed I would ride again. Except, it just kept not happening, which meant that I was cut loose from any sort of centering passion in my life. There were certainly things I enjoyed doing over the years, but that one thing was missing – the kind of  personal sanctuary that horses  and being around the barn had always provided for me before I left that part of my life behind.

Every year after I stopped riding,  I’d tell myself that “soon”  I’d be able to get back to doing the thing I loved most. But there was always a reason why I didn’t. I’d say to myself: “after this pregnancy,” or “when the baby weans, ” and then “when he/she starts kindergarten,” or “when there’s a little more money available,” or “when my divorce is final,” or “when my work schedule eases up.”  But time and more time passed, and I never rode. I never made it happen, even as I made sure that other family members were able to pursue their passions and interests. Seeing people I love get to do what they love certainly brings its own kind of joy and satisfaction, but it isn’t the same as doing it myself. Sanctuary isn’t really something one can experience vicariously.

I still believe that the day will come again when I will be back on a horse. But in the meantime, when I really didn’t have any way to tap into the moving meditation that riding had once upon a time provided for me, and at the time I needed exactly that more than I ever had before, along came my garden.

Thank God for the friends and neighbors who started that first  small, lovely garden bed for me in those terrible days right after Henry died — those early days when I couldn’t even leave my bedroom. They clearly knew something that I didn’t yet about what plants and dirt and growth and weeds and sunshine would do for me, when I let them. And I think Jon must have known too that I needed the sanctuary that the garden could give me. For the past year, my husband has done nothing but smile encouragingly when I linger outside on my knees in the dirt after work until it’s too dark for me to see my trowel any longer. And weekend after weekend, he’s happily urged me to spend Saturday mornings ambling around local nurseries and plant swaps, soaking up all the information I could about my blossoming hobby that’s so much more than “just a hobby” for me.

(Thank you, Jon. I love you.)

And I don’t think it’s a concidence that after seeing the way “getting into the zone” in the garden has benefited me, and how much I have enjoyed it, that earlier this summer, Jon announced that he was ready to start running again, something he loves but had given up when new babies and work and then losing Henry and just everything we’ve lived through — good and bad — had gotten in the way. And now he’s back to running five miles, four to six times each week after he gets home from work, and it’s just as wonderful for me to see him finding his own sanctuary in a good run as he says it’s been for him to see me find mine in flowers and mulch.

Yes. I am a gardener, because gardening has become my sanctuary. And I have come to believe that everyone — not just people like me who have experienced tragedy or trauma  — needs to give themselves the space and time to discover something that makes them feel the way gardening makes me feel

So now let’s talk about YOU. How about you? What puts you into the zone? What kind of fun do you have on a regular basis? Do you have a sanctuary? Or are you at a place in your life where you’re missing that, and know that you need to find a way to have it for yourself? What do you truly love to do, or what have you always wanted to do, just for your own self? What is an interest you’ve always kind of wanted to check out, or what’s the thing you loved to do before parenthood, but that you’ve denied yourself since bringing the baby home.  What’s keeping you from doing it?

(And here’s the part where I get just the tiniest bit bossy with y’all. )

You deserve to discover or rediscover your own sanctuary in the middle of your life – something that gives you both joy and peace. And you need it. Trust me on this, I get it now.


This is my sanctuary. What’s yours?

  • Liatris spicata 1 of 29
    Liatris spicata
    One of my gayfeather flowers at dusk. How cool is the name, "gayfeather?" Very, I'd say.
  • Oenothera speciosa 2 of 29
    Oenothera speciosa
    Mexican evening primrose in the bed on the other side of our fence.
  • Dahlia 3 of 29
    I wish I'd written down the specific type of dahlia this was when I bought the plant and installed it in my garden in May. But I didn';t. Soo all I can tell you is that it's sort of salmony color, and very pretty. That's our cat Moses hanging out with the dahlia.
  • Red rose 4 of 29
    Red rose
    This red rose bush was one of the plants that friends and neighbors put in the first little bed they planted for me between the day Henry died and his funeral 5 days later. It's in bloom right now.
  • Salvia splendens 5 of 29
    Salvia splendens
    Cardinal sage. The bees and butterflies are loving this one.
  • Portulaca 6 of 29
    Also known as purslane. I have about six different varieties of portulaca in various spots in my garden. This one lives in a purple pot.
  • Penta 7 of 29
    II love pentas. I have both red and pink ones, and I am really hoping that behave as a perennial for me like they seem to for some other local gardeners.
  • Yellow portulaca 8 of 29
    Yellow portulaca
    More purslane. Did you know you can eat this plant? It's super high in Omega 3. My five year old frequently grazes on it straight out of the garden.
  • Pink portulaca 9 of 29
    Pink portulaca
    Are you sensing a theme here? I like this plant!
  • Impatiens walleriana 10 of 29
    Impatiens walleriana
    This one lives in a little pot that sits next to a small bench I have in my garden. The little iron and wood bench was Henry's when he was a toddler.
  • Zinnias! Zinnias! Zinnias! 11 of 29
    Zinnias! Zinnias! Zinnias!
    These are the easiest, most eye popping flowers to grow. Anyone can have loads of them for only a few dollars in seeds, and I have dozens of them all over my garden this summer.
  • Asclepias 12 of 29
    This is one of the two types of butterfly weed that I have in y garden. This one is the mlkweed type. It took months to do anything, but now it's hit its stride. I love this plant, and so do all the butterflies who have now made my garden their new fave neighborhood hangout.
  • Ocimum basilicum 13 of 29
    Ocimum basilicum
    I've discovered that I love, love, love growing herbs (while not so much with the growing veggies). I have several types of basil in my garden. This one is a pesto type o' basil, called Pesto Perpetua.
  • Another snap of my gayfeather flowers 14 of 29
    Another snap of my gayfeather flowers
    They make me happier just looking at them.
  • Pink buddleia 15 of 29
    Pink buddleia
    I have three butterfly bushes. Two are purple, and then I have this pink one. Yay! More butterflies.
  • Pennisetum 16 of 29
    Fountain grass. II love the way the evening and early morning light shines through this groovy plant.
  • Pink buddleia, redux 17 of 29
    Pink buddleia, redux
    Another shot of my pink butterfly bush.
  • Dahlia hypnotica 18 of 29
    Dahlia hypnotica
    I have loved this little dahlia all summer long.
  • August 2012 in Henry’s Garden 19 of 29
    August 2012 in Henry's Garden
  • Perovskia atriplicifolia 20 of 29
    Perovskia atriplicifolia
    I have two kinds of Russian sage growing. This larger type, and then the smaller variety called "Little Spire." My challenge as a compulsive waterer is to let these plants remain dry enough to stay healthy. They don't like having wet feet.
  • Rosa ×odorata 21 of 29
    Rosa ×odorata
    This sweet little yellow hybrid tea rose is one that I planted in the first bed of Henry's Garden in November 2011, when my friend Kelley brought it to our house as a gift on the day G was christened. It's thrived, and has bloomed like crazy all spring and summer this year, even though I know absolutely nothing (yet) about properly caring for roses.
  • Yucca filamentosa 22 of 29
    Yucca filamentosa
    I don't generally go for desert-ey looking plants, but I just fell for this yucca and I think it will be a nice, year round structtural plant for the garden, of a size/scale that works for my space. It's a very recent addition, and I have my fingers crossed that it makes it.
  • Asclepias, redux 23 of 29
    Asclepias, redux
    Another snap of my butterfly-lure of a plant, the miilkweed
  • Echinacea 24 of 29
    I am kind of a coneflower hoarder. I really need to stop. I think I have six varieties growing now. This one is maybe my very favorite. It's called "Solar Flare,." Now that I've had coneflowers for a year, I have so many extra baby coneflower plants to give away that I can't even find enough good homes for all of them.
  • Lantana 25 of 29
    I love this stuff.
  • Picea glauca 26 of 29
    Picea glauca
    This is the dwarf alberta spruce that I've adde to one corner of the main garden (the garden that used to be half our front lawn before I took it out to have more space to grow things). My garden is small, so scale is important, but I do want to have some "bones" to add structure to the design as the garden fills in and matures. I also want to have some winter interest in the garden, when the flowers aren't showing off, so after miuch research, I selected this dwarf spruce plus a dwarf bluse star juniper shrub as my two evergreen elements. It's a wee thing yet, but it's thriving.
  • Another one of my many zinnia varieties 27 of 29
    Another one of my many zinnia varieties
    This one is a less flashy, single petal flower, but I kind of love how simply pretty it is.
  • View of main garden from front gate 28 of 29
    View of main garden from front gate
    It's hard to believe (for me, anyway) that this was a dead lawn only a month ago. Now it's a proper little cottage gardem albeit one that needs to fill in. I love and mature. I love my garden.
  • Hibiscus syriacus 29 of 29
    Hibiscus syriacus
    My little Double Althea Rose of Sharon bush is in bloom now. It's planted at the far end of the garden, and my plan is to prune and shape it over time into a single trunk, Rose of Sharon tree. I love these flowers, although the foliage on the Rose of Sharon isn't as nice as the blooms.





Article Posted 4 years Ago

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