The day after

Sunrise. — CaptPiper/Creative Commons

Sunrise. — CaptPiper/Creative Commons

Written Sept. 12, 2001, published in The Star-Ledger Sept,. 13, 2001.

When events overwhelm comprehension, when grief knifes our hearts and numbs all thought, it is as if the very ground beneath our feet has opened to reveal a terrible void.

What do we grasp to shore up a faltering sense of equilibrium? Where do we turn for solace? How do we face the terrible day after?

Instinctively, we seek the wordless comfort of touch, holding a loved one close, hugging a bewildered child, stroking a cherished pet, so innocent of human duplicity. We remember first and last that the best things in life aren’t things, but the bonds we’ve forged to keep our souls pinned to this time and place.

It can seem an affront that the sun rises still, that the sky is a heart-breaking arc of blue, that Nature proceeds, indifferent to human suffering. But here, too, is hope. Here, in Nature, is a paradigm for continuity, endurance and renewal.

In these terrible days, I visit my garden merely to be surrounded by its imperative, insistent life. I’m soothed by the shoots that seek the sun, by the bud that promises a flower and the blossom that, with the complicity of the bee, guarantees a seed. In these ever-changing, and yet unchanged cycles, there is the anticipation that life will go on, carrying us forward.

A garden is, almost by definition, a sanctuary from the press of everyday business and the blows of exceptional tragedy, a refuge from the noise and strife of a world grown too complex to be readily understood. We go there to return to our simpler selves, to kneel upon the earth, to get our hands dirty and cleanse our minds of turmoil.

In a garden, there is time and reason to appreciate the precious, ephemeral flower and rejoice in the deeply anchored, more permanent root. Things die away, but as every gardener understands, new life lies just beneath the surface.

We may not know how to save the world, but we know how to sow and prune and stake. We can distinguish the weed from the flower. We can recognize beauty in the infinite blue of the morning glory and the intricate spiral of the sunflower’s heavy, seeded head. True, we can’t always control the outcome, but when we give our best, we nourish something in ourselves.

Gardening assumes a certain knowing, a certain caring, a fixity of purpose and a measure of connection to the larger web of life. Fumbling or sure, we find our way to the lessons of garden-making and garden-keeping. When we keep our feet on the ground and our vision fixed on the next season, and the next, it makes for a steadiness of mind and a sense of hope.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts,” said Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring.” “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

It’s something to trust in when we can trust in nothing else, and in this, there is solace. We touch the earth, and hold fast. We have to believe we will grow beyond the moment, emerging no less surely than a plant from a speck of seed, into in the light of a new day.