I woke up very late this morning, after dreams that left me longing for something I couldn’t define. With no concrete plans, I worked on my novel for four hours straight, feeling mixed about the results. It’s a departure for me: an adult novel that takes place in two time periods. I really want it to be one thing, but it keeps pushing back at me and turning into something else.
I decided I had to get out of my apartment and break the restless tension that oppressed me. It’s a picture perfect fall day here in Brooklyn. No excuse for staying indoors. So I got myself together and packed up some books to return to the library, then set out for the walk down Eastern Parkway to Grand Army Plaza.
I started out striding with great purpose, eager to shed the heavy books I thought I needed but hadn’t even opened. Eastern Parkway seemed awfully quiet and subdued for a gorgeous fall Sunday, but I didn’t think too much of it. Until I reached the library—about a mile and a half walk—and discovered it was closed. It’s Columbus Day weekend.
I hadn’t the vaguest idea it was a national holiday, and that realization caught me up short. How much have I been hiding, keeping to myself? I forced my books into the almost-full book drop, then, suddenly bereft of purpose, set off back the way I came.
I decided, since I didn’t have my dog Betty with me, that I would take a slight detour and wander through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on my way back home. I’m a member, so it’s something I could do any time. But I haven’t been for several weeks. Perhaps even since the middle of the summer. I prefer to go there with a friend, someone to share the lovely surroundings with. But I made an exception.
As soon as I entered and started the walk down the path beneath the arched wisteria arbors, my pace slowed. I could still hear the traffic going by on Eastern Parkway, but the atmosphere that settled over me once inside the gates had the extraordinary effect of taking me out of the moment, making me see things not as I imagined them, but as the designers of that garden wanted me to see them. I noticed, perhaps consciously for only the first time among all the times I have visited it, how purposeful the garden is.
I took the upper path that gives a view over the rose garden and the cherry esplanade. The long, golden rays of sunlight cast a melancholy glow over the scene. Not the riotous colors of fall yet, down here so close to the ocean, but still a spattering of flowers clinging to their stems. There were only a few clumps of people in view, well spread out and walking reverently among the beds, or sitting on the benches, quietly talking, contemplating.
It struck me that each of us was reading the garden in our own way. Our eyes were directed to take in only so much at a time, depending on where we were. But we each brought to it our own understanding and history, our own frame of reference.
Mine is both complicated and very simple when it comes to that place, one of my favorites in the entire world. I first visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with my daughters, when they were only five and eight years old. I have since visited many times at very different stages of my life, at every season of the year.
And there it was. All of those days caught up in a bundle and presented to me, a gift. I was almost overwhelmed with a sudden, poignant openness, something painful and sweet at the same time. The saddest thing of all was remembering the most recent spring, watching the flowers poke up and overspread the landscape with such a riot of hope for the future, and realizing that soon it would be winter again.
Already, the flowers have mostly faded. Only the roses are brave enough to keep pushing out blossoms as the nights get colder and colder. It hit me with the force of a gut punch to realize that this time of year is just like me. I’ve left the fruitful seasons behind and am trying to come to terms with a golden autumn. It has moments of unparalleled beauty, but the winter is in view.
I wandered very slowly around the familiar paths. I ambled, really. Time stopped for me, and I respected that gesture with my pace.
My feet took me to the lily pond, then back toward the Japanese garden. That garden within the garden is the most purposeful of all spaces. Every vista carefully controlled to reveal something about nature, or at least, about a garden. Like a mystery, or a plot twist, that doesn’t come clear until you get to a certain place.
The viewing pagoda that juts out over the water is always a little crowded. On the nicest days, it’s a bit of a circus, really, with excited children and people jostling to get the seats by the railing. But in keeping with the day’s energy, I noticed the benches were lined with people just like me. Individuals, gazing out over the water, looking rather sad.
It was so beautiful I didn’t want to leave, but I knew I had to. The next time I go it will all look different again.
As soon as I walked out of the gate and crossed the road, I was back in the present time. Things I hadn’t wanted to remember, or at least pushed down beneath the surface, imposed themselves upon me. My aging father. Little Morgan, only five years old, with signs of cancer on her liver. Afghanistan. Religious intolerance. My own fear of failure.
Everything brief, yet eternal. And so we write, or paint, or grow a garden.