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Japanese Garden: Portland, Oregon

By Brenda Miller

Once, a long time ago, I walked in the Japanese Garden with my friend Pat. And with us: his girlfriend Nancy, who would be his wife in a few years’ time but not yet, and so as I walked between them I could feel their love just budding, the giddiness of it. I remembered how it had been with Pat and me, years earlier, in our bed in Wyoming, that love waxing a cocoon between us and the rest of the people in the house. We snagged the only real bedroom in the place, and we spent a lot of time there—in love with each other, yes, but more in love, I think now, with our youth, with the possibilities not yet squandered. Sex, back then, was a kind of meditation, a way to hold the present in your two hands, cupped there, brimming. But that was years ago, and as I walked in the garden with Pat and his future wife, I felt nothing, really, but a dim happiness.

It was fall in the garden, not yet winter, but entering that season of scarcity. Already we could see the bare lines that hold a garden together, the limbs beneath the already fading leaves, the rocks in the sand surrounded by bits of twig. Out the corner of my eye I saw a stone well—ornamental, I thought—no water, but the promise of water in its tilted bucket and wooden crankwheel. We kept moving, not urgently but steadily, all of us humming a little beneath our breaths. It made me think of that suspended time after sex, the contentment, the nowhere-to-go-but-here feeling that kept us in bed a long time, our minds moving in synch, so that conversation became a piecing together of fragments: small bones that yield a whole person, given time.

I began a meditation practice not long after Pat and I split up. Meditating, I thought back then, would be pleasant as walking in a Japanese garden, where the bends in the path reveal one lovely vista after another, all the branches trimmed, the red maple set off by a flowering plum behind it. I thought meditation would be a quiet place, save for the faint tinkle of wind chimes, the creak of a rope at the well. Maybe I would smell a flowering cherry, or breathe in the scent of distant smoke from the temple fires. I imagined myself silent and still as a stone Buddha who sits inside the changing seasons—immutable and temperate, even under the gathering snow.

But meditation turned out to be a noisy place, filled with scratchy clothes and loud, remonstrative voices in my head, full of complaint. A place where the well remained empty and the bucket clattered wildly against its sides. A garden that had not been tended in a long, long time and so the trails led only into dank underbrush. Occasionally, a chime would sound, and I would hear it, but for the most part I just kept stumbling along, brushing away the branches and leaves that waved in my path.

These days I have a whole room for meditation; all that resides there is my cushion, an incense tray, and a tiny brass Buddha who perches on the windowsill. This room is upstairs, tucked under the eaves of my house, and out the high window a Hawthorne tree provides flowering branches in spring, red berries in the fall. Sometimes I sit there and know that Japanese-Garden feeling: my body permeable, swaying on those branches, shimmering here and there in the light. In spring the birds make a ruckus in the leaves, coupling even while the female holds grass in her beak, bits of the future nest. Below me, the bedroom sits empty, my bed neatly made, no dishevelment among the sheets. From there, too, I consider the Hawthorne, but those low windows frame only the trunk, winding out of the ground. It’s an old and gnarled beast, already half dead, but the tree seems not to notice; it pulses out fresh leaves and blossoms above, as if death were only a mirage.

Brenda Miller teaches at Western Washington University. She has received three Pushcart Prizes for her work in creative nonfiction, and her essays have been published in such periodicals as The Sun, Utne Reader, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Seneca Review, and Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Her collection of essays, Season of the Body, available from Sarabande Books, was a finalist for the Pen American Center Book Award in Creative Nonfiction, and her creative nonfiction textbook, Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, has just been published by McGraw-Hill. She is the Editor-in-Chief of The Bellingham Review.


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