Porthole Garden. Photo by Martin Stone. https://tinyurl.com/2mfsybpv

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A Womb Is a Garden

I. Spring


Components of a garden: seed, soil, water, sun. The cycles inherent to each. Pollinators. All that is hidden from the naked eye as well, such as microbes and earthworms. Time. The word I can’t commit to is “gardener.” Does a garden need a gardener?

At thirty-one, my understanding was still this: there is a God, or there is not. Male/female, right/wrong, heaven/hell. These polarities had been tempered into me when I was young. They were such a part of my thought process that I only noticed them when they were challenged. I’d spent a good chunk of my twenties challenging them with books and sex and drugs, and I’d been briefly but dramatically disowned in the process. Honor thy mother and father I’d been taught, but my life was improved for this experience, revealing the ambiguity of even the Ten Commandments. I’d learned that the world wasn’t what I thought it was, but I didn’t know how to think about it instead. My yearning was for a new ontology.

The Atlanta Shambhala Center didn’t offer childcare, but they did offer a beautiful room, some children’s meditation cushions, and a dozen or so illustrated Jataka tales. My husband and I knew almost nothing about Buddhism, and neither of us had a meditation practice. But we’d both been raised attending Sunday school, so it felt more natural to start a children’s program than to take turns staying home with our son. The new children’s program was announced in the weekly bulletin.

In my memory, Alisa walks through the door that very first Sunday and says, “I’m not afraid to die.” She holds her youngest child on her hip and leads her daughter by the hand. Her husband stands beside her holding the childrens’ windbreakers and backpacks, his face slack with shock. Alisa swings her cinnamon-headed son to the floor, and his sister drags him to join my child in unpacking a plastic toy bin across a worn couch. “I was diagnosed yesterday with stage 4 liver cancer,” Alisa says.

Everything in this memory I trust but the timing. Alisa and I met either a few weeks or a few months before that moment. We weren’t strangers but new friends. I’d been to her home and she’d been to mine. Our families were the only two taking advantage of the new childcare offering, so the four adults had been negotiating Sunday morning hours.

My next memory in this thread is of being in a kitchen in a house in the north Georgia mountains, slicing a cantaloupe into pieces for Alisa’s children. She and her husband are outside in a sweat lodge. Alisa’s teenage daughter from her first marriage and the stepdaughter she became a mother to when she remarried are at the kitchen table making snarky comments, the particulars of which I don’t recall. Maybe they’d done a round in the sweat lodge and were processing that experience, and certainly they were processing what they were experiencing in a broader sense: their mother’s diagnosis. I was there so that these girls were free to be with the adults or the children, as they were at that nebulous age where they needed to be recognized as both. Alisa’s toddlers were too young to enter the lodge, but the shaman wanted them on site, near the healing energy.

I didn’t understand what a sweat lodge was, and I didn’t yet know to question an old white man calling himself a shaman and offering Indigenous rituals on his land. I don’t know if anyone else thought about these things.

I tried to do nothing but cut the cantaloupe while I cut the cantaloupe, as I’d been practicing at Shambhala. But I couldn’t. I was afraid. I was sad. And so I did what I’d done all of my life, I prayed. I thought of the angry God like a thundercloud who might yet cast me into hell; the pale-skinned, white-robed Jesus ascending on a sunbeam in my children’s Bible; the goddess images I’d been given by friends—a Kali fridge magnet; a Changing Woman tarot card by Susan Seddon Boulet. I thought of the deities I couldn’t identify painted on the thangkas that hung in the shrine room at Shambhala, green and blue skinned, seated on floating lotus flowers. All of these and more I spoke with in that shaman’s kitchen. It wasn’t a one-sided conversation. Prayer is listening, mostly. My body responded—aversion when I approached thundercloud God; comfort from the gentle eyes of Boulet’s Changing Woman.

I’d not yet learned the word “appropriation.”

I believed wholly in the possibility of Alisa’s spontaneous healing, in a miracle. While I cut the cantaloupe, I gave my all to it.

II. Summer


Even in the years I do no planting or tending at all, there is something to harvest from my designated garden spot. This summer past it was chickweed. I’ve never planted chickweed, but it’s always somewhere in the yard, and this year it was in the garden bed. It liked the work that had been done in previous seasons; it liked this year’s neglect. I added it to salads and steeped it for an eye rinse.

After a few months of exhausting and painful surgeries and treatments, Alisa got pregnant. This pregnancy was one she’d been anticipating—not planning or trying for, but expecting nonetheless. Two years earlier, she and a friend both dreamed on the same night that Alisa birthed a child. They were shown that this child was a girl, and Alisa heard a voice tell her the child’s name: Petal. So here she was, Petal. Alisa felt it wasn’t her place to question Petal’s timing.

I disagreed. I thought she should have an abortion. I thought she should focus on herself, on her own healing. I asked Alisa if she was worried about the baby developing cancer one day as a result of being conceived during chemotherapy treatments. I asked this because this is what I was worried about, and I didn’t hear the stupid arrogance of my question. Of course she’d considered this possibility. She’d considered it while she sat in a chair receiving radioactive liquid through the port in her chest. She’d considered not only this outcome, but dozens I couldn’t—and can’t—imagine. I should have asked her to share her wisdom with me instead of questioning if she had any.

But she wasn’t offended. She explained that she’d found a group of women online who had carried healthy children to term during cancer treatments. Some of these children were in their teens now, and none of them had developed cancer. “Cancer isn’t life’s only unknown,” she said. Alisa was in her mid-thirties, and she’d already been widowed, remarried, given a terminal diagnosis.

Here is what I didn’t understand that day, but can see now, fifteen years later. I considered Alisa’s cancer treatments a pause—she would wage her war and then, once she was in remission, emerge victorious and resume her life. Though I would have claimed not to believe this, I’d bought the messaging that the young are guaranteed good health, and that if something other than good health happens, life is unfair. I defined “life” as the parts of my human experience that I liked—lazy hours in a park with friends, library books. The parts I disliked, such as arguments with my spouse or hours lost to fury over George W. Bush’s foreign policies, I considered something other than life. I wanted to eradicate the parts of my life that I disliked, and my idea of compassion was eradicating these parts not only for myself but also for others.

I’d spent hours sitting on a hard blue cushion in the Shambhala shrine room under the watchful gaze of blue and green deities I still couldn’t identify, trying to be present. But I’d placed those hours on a number line that moved from my present-day life with its challenges and complications to an idealized future life with no challenges or complications. I’d replaced the word “heaven” with the word “enlightenment.” I was as caught up with being right as I’d ever been, and I still believed someone could define right for me. It terrified me that Alisa planned to behave in a way discernible only to herself. She showed me that it isn’t possible to live both the truth we listen for and the truth others want to impose upon us.

Alisa left her doctors—and her community—no choice but to support her. We walked with her into the unknown, and in doing so, we were forced to acknowledge that the unknown is our only destination.

At the baby shower, Alisa was radiant, hugely pregnant, cheeks flushed with life. The cancer had behaved as she anticipated, taking a seat while she grew a new human. Petal was due to arrive in a matter of days or weeks. The room was so full that I sat on the floor with my knees pulled to my chest, and the women pressed close to either side of me sat the same way. We went from person to person, making our offerings. The evening was one rainbow blur of words about magic and goddesses and renewal and grace and surrender and trust and faith until the woman in front of me spoke. She said, “We’re here with you right now because you’re a fucking warrior.” She scanned the room, daring someone to correct her.

I was thirty-two, mother to a kindergartner. I’d had a natural childbirth and nursed my son into toddlerhood. But in that moment I may as well have been eleven years old, feeling my painful breast buds in the shower and realizing with embarrassment and wonder that my body was on a mission of its own—inside my belly rested ovaries and a womb.

III. Fall


The action of the seed is bound with the action of the gardener and vice versa. They are connected by the string of cause and effect that precedes them. This shared history links them into the future as well. Even one thousand years from now, there will be some plant whose existence could be traced backward to the chickweed that grew in my neglected garden this summer past. So the seed and the gardener aren’t separate. They are, rather, two components of a larger system that, for the purpose of this metaphor, I’ll call a garden.


What are the boundaries of a garden?

A handful of memories: a May Day festival where Alisa was covered in glitter and the children danced with ribbons; a writers’ group she formed that I briefly attended; her divorce and skillful co-parenting; the pregnant cat her eldest daughter rescued and the floppy-limbed tuxedo kitten I adopted from that litter; a conversation we had where she described a lung’s bronchioles reaching down into the body, and a tree’s limbs reaching up to the sky; Petal starting Montessori school; the juicer I either loaned Alisa or bought as a result of something she taught me about nutrition, or maybe both; the fact that she was juicing because the sores in her mouth made it difficult to chew; the extensive dental work she needed after years of successful cancer treatment; the on-going challenges to adequate nutrition—dental decay, mouth sores, nausea and nutrition—nausea and vomiting, mouth sores, dental decay—that were part of being Alisa and part of being alive.

Just as Alisa didn’t tell me that she wasn’t afraid to die the first time I met her, neither did she tell me that she’d found Jesus during our last conversation, but this is how I remember it. There is still something deep inside of me that wants to arrange life on a number line pointing toward a perfect future. But she didn’t call to talk to me of heaven or enlightenment or any other end point, but of only love. Jesus’s love. “I feel it so deeply,” she said. “I’m a Christian. Can you believe that? After all of this, I really think I’m a Christian.”

And just as I had been unable to understand Alisa’s decision to carry Petal to term in the moment she told me of her plan, I wasn’t able to understand her feelings about Christianity during that conversation. I’m not claiming to understand them now. What I know is that when I began this essay, I had no intention of writing about Alisa. I meant only to explore the idea of a creator God—a belief that Christianity has and Buddhism does not. If there’s no end point, it’s easy to believe that nothing matters and fall into nihilism. But life shows us that nihilism isn’t true. Every single thing we do or don’t do, every word we say or don’t say, every feeling we allow or refuse, matters profoundly. Not toward an end goal, but in the very living, breathing moment. And again, unexpectedly sometimes, in a future living, breathing moment. So that Alisa, who died in 2014, is here now with you as you listen, just as she has been with me for all the hours I’ve written these words.

I left Shambhala years ago, but I didn’t leave Buddhism. For the past year, I’ve begun most mornings with a Green Tara meditation that I learned online, from an abbey in Washington state. I imagine Green Tara in front of me, gazing at me lovingly while I go through the visualizations, and prayers, and poems. In the final step you visualize Green Tara coming over your head and transforming into a radiating green light and seeping into you, so that you are Tara and she is you. I’d hoped to write this final step so well that you might feel it in your own body, the melting and softening I experience when I imagine myself doing the impossible work of living my same life, but with abiding compassion, ceaseless equanimity, simple, profound, unwavering love.

I think this is what Alisa wanted to convey to me in what I remember as our final phone call and what I know wasn’t—isn’t—our final conversation.

IV. Winter


A body is a garden. Time is a garden. A life is a garden. A mind is a garden. A friendship is a garden. A womb is a garden. Existence is a garden. A garden is a garden.


A garden is a garden.


Garden is a garden.


Is a garden.


A garden.