Beauty, loss, and making friends with change.
Updated: Jul 20, 2019
“Let difficulty transform you. And it will. In my experience, we just need help in learning not to run away.” ― Pema Chodron
Back when I worked on-staff at Seattle Japanese Garden, life was often very hard.
I was mired in drawn-out divorce negotiations. Working evenings and weekends without predictable care for my young kids. Getting large bills seemingly out of nowhere.
I was hustling hard to live, to figure out what to do next and to stay afloat. I kept a positive attitude as much as I could because the goal was to move forward. But most of the time, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was moving forward to.
Creating a Career Act 2 in the midst of family life upheaval wasn’t at all how I’d imagined my midlife to look. I felt lost, unprepared, and ashamed at my predicament. How was I supposed to want this newly unfolding life?
“I am such a failure,” I’d tell myself, especially in the dark of the night.
It wasn’t a nice thing to say. But it gave me an explanation. And an explanation was the closest I could come to finding solace in those moments of fear and confusion.
Somewhere along the way, I read about—and eventually started writing about—the ephemeral beauty of Japanese gardens. Every leaf, every bloom, the blue sky reflected on the pond surface, all of it passes. Constantly, sometimes unpredictably. Things we don’t expect to have happened, happen.
In these gardens, our attention is intentionally drawn to the fact that loss is ever present. And also to the fact that surprise can be intensely delightful, too. I’ve had some sad spring afternoons watching sudden rain turn the last double-layer cherry blossoms into tiny piles of pale pink mush on the ground. But the sweet, earthy smells that get released into the air at the same time? That’s its own kind of beautiful.
I wasn’t aware of it at first. But as my number of days in the garden grew, days in which I was part of the cycle of emergence and loss, the less I struggled late at night. In between obsessing over what a failure I was, there’d be tiny breaks—slivers of mind spaces where I could sit with being uncomfortable with all the uncertainty ahead of me, to accept that some things don’t come with explanations. And be curious about what might come next.
Little by little, I was getting liberated from my worldview that winning at life meant getting things all figured out and then making sure I keep things held together forever.
Little by little, my life is acquiring a sheen of intentional, ever-evolving, ephemeral beauty inspired by the garden, and made up of a dynamic interplay between single motherhood, work, creative expression, friendship, and romantic love.
I remembered all of this while recalling my recent visit to the verdant Saiho-ji in Kyoto—a garden famous for being exquisitely moss-covered, something that it wasn’t originally intended to be—while at the same time, processing the sudden ending of a client relationship that happened this week.
The beautiful thing about lessons learned is that they come back to us, even if we’ve forgotten. We have the power of recall.
If you’re going through a loss right now, death of any kind—someone dear, a relationship, a career prospect, your health, or even a loss-anniversary or a post-partum kind of loss with an end that was planned for—my heart goes out to you. These are hard times.
You, too, have found your way through loss before. You have your version of the garden; a place, a book, a person, a spark of an idea that gave you sustenance while you moved you through hardship.
Let them come back to you.
If you let them, and where you’re ready, they will give you a glimmer of something you want from this new unfolding of life.
PS. Pema Chodron's classic book is one of my all-time favorite companions for moving through hard times.
PPS. If you're in Seattle, please go see the Japanese Garden for yourself! Here are some others you can visit in North America.
PPPS. For those of you who find solace in planting and tending gardens,this children's book is pure joy.