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  • Writer's pictureClaire Aston

Gardening leave...

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

Somehow, it is the first week of August. Where did July go? I wrote in my last blog that time was passing strangely with the whole family at home, and that is still very much the case.

We've cracked a daily routine, and while I won't pretend every day is a success, I think we've now all worked out how to give each other space, and ignore the household jobs until deadlines are met. Although, strangely, I seem compelled to suddenly hoover just before tackling a difficult project. Which must be the equivalent of alphabetising my CD collection before writing essays at University...

And time passes fast. It's now the 'last week before our holiday', in which work To Do lists are crossed off, packing lists are rediscovered (I'm unashamedly keen on lists), and suncream is dug out in hope.

I have no idea whether we will actually be able to get to France as planned (this is, typically, the first year that we were organised enough to plan our summer holiday in winter). But even if the dreaded virus puts that on hold until next year, we will go somewhere, be that camping in the garden or further afield, and do our best to ignore emails for two weeks.

Our brains and our souls need it. Just as they need to idle on repetitive tasks so that the ideas can float upwards (see Bored and Brilliant as referenced in June), so they need a proper switch off once in a while.

Ideally weekly - but we're not very good at that in today's culture - and definitely annually.

If you're that way inclined, you'll already be familiar with the ancient concept of Sabbath - most recently and brilliantly explored in Garden City -Work, Rest, and the art of being human by the highly readable theologian John Mark Comer. Inspired to rethink his own routine after almost burning out, he explains how his family now consciously keeps one day clear from work and 'toil'. He writes:

“We need to relearn how to power down, unplug, disconnect, take a break, and be in one place at one time. We forget that we’re not a machine. We can’t work 24/7.”

I love this book, because the author is honest about the fact that, if you're driven to succeed, and live in a 24 hour society, it can be really, very difficult to learn how to switch off. He also explores the creation narrative. Even if you're sceptical about the creation story, you have to admit that there's something compelling about God taking a day off after all that creating...

But what to do on our breaks? And how to have a mental break if, like many this year, your travel plans are thrown awry?

One answer is to get closer to the earth. To pause, even if just long enough to enjoy a flower.

I've just finished a fascinating book, The Well Gardened Mind which explores the idea of rest, and restoration, written by an experienced psychotherapist who is also a keen gardener. Given to me by my Mum- a brilliant and enthusiastic gardener, who's own small patch is now immaculate thanks to COVID lockdown - it explores our link with nature, and it's healing effect on our mind.

The author - Sue Stuart-Smith - fills the pages with inspiring stories from around the world, of mental health patients re-learning how to engage with others through slowly building a sense of trust whilst gardening (seeds don't criticise you...) and of elderly people who garden living longer and having a better quality of life.

Exploring the cyclical time of the seasons - spring, summer, autumn, winter, and then spring again - Sue contrasts this to the linear approach to time that we take in modern life, where we are always searching for something better, or newer.

She argues that we need to pause, every now and then in order to reflect on what we have learnt in the previous season, 'for it is only then that we can reflect on and assimilate the things that have happened to us.

'If we lack time and mental space for this, experience feels more like one disparate or unconnected ever after another. Life starts to lack meaning'.

Who doesn't need to reflect on the past few weeks, and work out what they mean for us?

And who wouldn't find this easier in the presence of something beautiful, be that a flower, a clear sky, or a quiet field in which we can hear ourselves think?

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading up on the experiences of asylum seekers and people navigating our immigration system here in the UK, thanks to work I'm doing with both Refugee Action and the Integration Awards. Doing so, I discovered The Beekeeper of Aleppo, which tells the story of, quite literally, a Beekeeper from Aleppo in Syria, who navigates his way, eventually, to safety in Britain. And who finds solace in a cherry tree in the otherwise bleak garden of his first holding place in Britain:

'He looks out through the glass doors into the courtyard. It is a small concrete square with flagstones and one cherry tree in the middle.
I get up and press my face against the glass. It is nine o’clock and the sun is just setting. The cherry tree is tall and black against the glowing sky.'

The cherry tree guides him through an otherwise turbulent period, and his memories of the bees in Aleppo, and the hope of nurturing new bees in Britain, ground him despite the chaos.

So, as we hope to head off to our own peaceful fortnight, be that in France, or in our own back garden under the shade of next door's apple tree, I'm going to think of that cherry tree, and its sense of hope, and restoration.

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