Cultivating a Secret Garden

I am sure there is Magic in everything, 
only we have not sense enough to get hold of it
and make it do things for us.

 -- Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, 1911)

Photo by Chloe LKB

Photo by Chloe LKB

When I lived outside of Washington, D.C. during the eighties, I had a secret garden, which I shared with the Episcopal Bishop at the Washington Cathedral.  Known as “The Bishop’s Garden,” it was a walled combination of an herb and rose garden, which you entered by pushing a heavy wooden door through a stone arch.  Although it was a “public” garden, I rarely encountered another soul there.  Throughout the spring and autumn I would frequently enjoy a writing picnic lunch before the afternoon car pool.

Twenty years later I would live in Newton’s Chapel, surrounded by a wall and a gate and a beautiful garden.  I don’t have to wonder if my visualizing The Bishop’s Garden, which was such a part of my daily meditation during the long writing of Simple Abundance, eventually led to my own secret garden.  I don’t have to wonder because I know.  

My Newton's Chapel garden

My Newton's Chapel garden

However, when we have endured unexpected but very real seasons of sorrow, worry and unanswered prayer, our state of belief becomes very fragile and our imagination is choked off. That’s why I wanted to revisit the Simple Abundance meditation for June 20th “Secret Gardens.”

I’ve always found the backstories of writers so fascinating, that’s why I call this blog “Between the Lines.” Every writer lives in between the lines of their lives, especially if their work has met with some success.  

The backstory of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s creation of The Secret Garden long after she had to abandon the English sanctuary she had so loved and rescued at Great Maytham Hall on the Kent seaside in the twilight of the Victorian era, is a powerful and poignant personal story for me. 

It was 1898 and finally, after years of magazine serial writing and children’s stories and a difficult, struggling decade which included poverty, the death of a child, a nervous breakdown, a long-standing marriage ending in divorce and a tumultuous second marriage to a scoundrel young enough to be her son, Frances had an unexpected hit on her hands with Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886).  Suddenly the money started rolling in and the Little Lord Fauntleroy “brand” became one of the first examples of a successful product extension based on a book.  There were toys, games, a clothing line, plays, sequels, and eventually when Hollywood could catch up, movies.  Imagine Harry Potter and the celebrity of J.K. Rowling without the internet.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett

But even back then, with an international best-seller came public fervor, professional demands, lack of privacy and increased scrutiny. Discouraged and shocked because of the public outcry over her divorce and remarriage to an actor, (which she knew was a mistake as soon as she said “I do,”) she needed a quiet place to beat a retreat, collect herself and rebuild her life.  She was a bundle of nerves, deeply depressed and unknowingly ill with the early stages of tuberculosis.  She had no strength and breathed with difficulty.  She wanted to sleep around the clock, just as her publisher was demanding more of her.  Since Frances was the sole support of an entire retinue of people, it seemed she had no choice but to go on.  And so she retreated to the mild Southern English seaside of Kent.

Although eight miles from the coast, you can practically hear the waves beating against the shore at Great Maytham Hall, a giant wreck of an imposing Georgian house, which was just about caving in on its knees when Frances rented it.  There were a series of walled gardens she was told, but the outdoor space had become so overgrown it resembled Sleeping Beauty’s castle which had been asleep for a hundred years.  Frances’s future and the world’s “Secret Garden” was so overgrown and covered in thick and thorny vines, it couldn’t even be seen.

Have you ever known the feeling of really being burned out?  When you’re so exhausted that just the thought of going downstairs to make yourself a cup of tea requires the effort and strength of mountain climber? That’s how spent Frances felt. But every morning outside her bedroom window a robin sang on a branch.  Frances soon found her curiosity aroused, and then slowly her physical energy increased until she found the strength to take walks outside, and then the strength to pull back and cut away the dead growth of what had once been a garden. Next, she discovered a heavy wooden door and pushed her way through it to what would become her private outdoor sacred sanctuary.  Step by step, day by day. Eventually she transformed the rose garden by planting over three hundred coral pink rose bushes and ramblers.

Here Frances spent contented days, alternating between gardening and writing, shadowed by a large floral Japanese parasol.  On chilly days she would wrap herself in a large lap rug and only retreat to the Hall when she was forced to.  Over the next nine happy years she would write three more books and a play.  But in 1907 her lease at Great Maytham Hall was not renewed and heartbroken, she returned to America.  Immediately she started planning and planting a replica rose garden on Long Island, but more importantly, she began work on what would become her most renowned accomplishment, The Secret Garden published in 1911.

Great Maytham Hall

Great Maytham Hall

The Secret Garden is the story of the redemption of two miserable, lonely children, a sick boy and an orphaned girl, who are encouraged and nurtured by Mother Nature to bring back to life an abandoned overgrown garden hidden behind stone walls.  Its miraculous revival becomes an inspiring metaphor for their own rescue and restoration, as well as the author’s.

Towards the end of her life, Frances recalled how working in the garden at Great Maytham Hall had restored her own will to live and sense of self.  The fond memories of “a softly rainy spring in Kent when I spent nearly three weeks kneeling on a small rubber mat on the grass edge of a heavenly old herbaceous border bed” remained vivid in her imagination as well as “the plants which were to bloom in loveliness for me in the summer.”

I believe we all have a “Secret Garden” in the depths of our soul and the state of the garden depends upon the health and vitality of our inner life, not our outer one.  When we are abruptly pulled away from the life we expected to be living, planned for and dreamed about through death, debt, divorce or illness and suddenly find ourselves wakening in an alien landscape, it is staggering to all our senses; the five physical senses and the two spiritual senses—intuition and wonder.  What is so shocking is that this “new” reality has no timetable.  There is a staggering and lengthy state of amnesia accompanying grief and dismay.  We may appear to others to be back to normal, but the reality is we might as well be living in a hologram—suspended neither in the past, present or future. 

So how do we move from shadow to sunlight?  Through asking for one day’s grace and expressing gratitude.  Through choosing one morning, not to keep our head turned to the wall, but to get out of bed.  Step by step, we enter into a daily round and then our faded dreams move from pastel hues to vibrancy, the same way that we work with an overgrown and abandoned garden.  By cutting away one hurtful vine at a time and refusing to replay one more miserable memory for an entire day.  This week revisit the secret garden in your soul; push open the heavy wooden door.  Put on your spiritual gardening gloves and get your sharpest clippers.  Clear one vine, cutaway one thought of the past that holding you back.  Have you ever had a woman to weed wrestling match?  That’s what it’s like and that’s what it takes.

Every day we determine our destiny by what we think about.  Nobody knows how inconvenient I find this truth to be today, but I can’t do anything about it, nor can you, except change our thoughts.  Weed out our disappointments, frustrations, diminished ambitions, unfulfilled expectations, sorrow and frustration about what has gone before or what has not yet come.  This emotional underbrush and weeds only choke our days, and our days become our destiny.  Bless your imagination, pray that a new idea will be planted by the Sower of dreams.  Then let passion tend the garden with patience and perseverance.  For, as Frances Hodgson Burnett discovered, and we can, too:  “When you have a Garden, you have a Future and when you have a Future, you are Alive.”

Sending dearest love, Babe, and always blessings on your courage.