Christmas cards across the miles. As I begin to write them, when the house and the town are quiet, I find my thoughts meandering over the years and recalling people who have been and are part of my world...far scattered relations and friends, priest and pastors, new acquaintances, other writers. I add my good wishes as I remember our stories.
Early summer gardens in Aotearoa are becoming lush with colour and growth and a dear friend and fellow scribe, Margaret, comes into my mind. Spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose, muddy gumboots, trowel in hand, ready to turn over the vegetable beds of her remarkable garden.
She and her husband, David, a Presbyterian minister, retired to Kent to be near their family. The local Anglican church is their spiritual home and community. David takes his place in the old wooden pulpit there from time to time. Thinking of them, I long for Margaret to be here to teach and encourage this younger apprentice, who also has a liking for the earth. I add 'love' to their card as I do to others. Christmas is a time to remember good people.
Times of reflection happen in gardens. On a recent trip to Oamaru, I came across a storytelling place. It was gardener James Kidd's imaginative creativity that helped to establish the Oamaru public gardens in 1876. Now, native kowhai, ribbonwood, lancewood, flax, lemonwood, fivefinger, matagouri, hohena, astelia, and even kauri grow there, mingling with settler trees and shrubs. A mixed heritage.
The intense scent of honeysuckle and roses and a landscape of apricot, lilac, cream and raspberry, pink, ivory white blooms and golden stamens echo the fragrance of another place where once there was peace. Syria. The air in Damascus at an earlier time in history was apparently filled with the scent of attar of roses and aromatic herbs. It is cordite, fires and flesh now. How the people who live out their lives in the midst of such violence and bloodshed must wish and pray to smell the fragrance of peace.
Back to the gardens at Oamaru. It is in the imagining that we find ourselves a part of the tales of a community, a land, a people. Trees have been planted commemorating significant events in the life of our turbulent colonial history - and more. A victory beech planted on VJ Day, 1945 by the Mayoress, Miss Betty Kirkness commemorates peace. The Kauri, still growing strong in a Southern climate, marks the centenary of the Borough of Oamaru. Schubert's string quartet No. 15 is playing at the band rotunda on a sun-filled Victorian afternoon. The eight-sided Elderslie summer house shelters us from the sun.
A plaque on a seat opposite, is dedicated to Norman Ellis who died in 2005: “A dedicated Waitaki county council worker, formerly of Windsor, from wife Betty and children”. Betty's name is now alongside her husband's, as it should be. She died in 2011: “A woman dedicated to the communities she lived in”.
Most of us probably do not know Betty or Norman. Yet, somehow, this garden tells us that we do. We can know their love of beauty, their sense of longing for peace which this garden gifts to its ambling visitors. We know they had a family who loved them, that they were people who worked and contributed to the well-being of their communities. Their lives and ours are interwoven: joy and sorrow, light and dark, community and solitude, fragility and strength. There is no easy way to encounter resurrection.
Surprises are part of life. There is a bronze sculpture, 'Wonderland', crafted by the Scottish sculptor, Thomas J. Clapperton (1879-1962) and gifted to the children of Oamaru in 1926 by mayor, Robert Milligan. Clapperton was born in a small Borders town, Galashiels. Many of his sculptures can be admired in villages and towns in the Borders of Scotland and throughout the world. I grew up in Galashiels. I recall a distant relative of his, Susan, who was a family friend of ours and lived to one hundred years old. I can see her now, small, white-haired, rosy cheeked, a King Charles spaniel always at her side. I remember her unexpectedly in this remote country.
There are no fences in the garden. I wonder if we are called to leave the confines of the enclosed space in this life? That we are neither to be bound by who we thought we were nor by the attitudes of others. The prophetic Jesus preaches a gospel that frees us from the posturing and power-broking of the narrow political concerns of this world, frees us from the need to find security in possessions or addictions or an anxious and fretful selfishness. Sometimes though the doctrines and rules and regulations of our churches imprison us. We have no need to be so confined. Do we?
Nothing in the garden is finished. Pathways and streams diverge and interconnect, no beginnings, no endings. Plants grow, die and come to new life. Much of life is unfinished isn't it? From symphonies to relationships. The gospels are full of loose ends, unfinished business, unanswered questions. Words of absolute certainty, neat and tidy little endings can disempower us to creatively love and live.
I read some time ago about the worldwide Gardens of Forgiveness project, which began in Lebanon. It is a concept expressing the life-affirming qualities of forgiveness and love through cultivating living beauty in the earth. Gardens are being created where people can make a path for themselves, which can lead them towards transformation, reconciliation and unity. Perhaps the future will grow a garden in Syria.
In the Oamaru garden, as in other places, dedicated green-fingers tend and care for what is there, managing the pests that threaten to destroy, trimming, feeding, pruning, watering, cutting away dead wood. They offer the fruits of their labours and gifts from God to us. We are thankful.
Back to writing Christmas cards to post overseas. And more remembering. With Advent hope.
© Hilary Oxford Smith
26 November 2012
Image: God's Garden of Forgiveness, Andrea Brueck, Oil on Canvas