The fall garlic planting mission has always been accompanied by a prayer, of sorts. An atheistic kind, largely faithless: “Okay then, do your thing.” I’d brush my hands clean of the moist black soil and feel again the improbability of all this growing business – stick clove in soil, anticipate its budding five or six months from now? Really? How the hell does this even work?
The little nubs of green shooting up through the mulch in the spring always caught me by surprise. It worked! It actually worked! There must be some trick to this Life business. I want to believe! But everyone knows that magic is just a sleight of hand, all illusion.
This year was different. I don’t think I can attribute it to experience, to ten consecutive successful garlic harvests. The difference is that this year, there’s a new word in my vocabulary: The Underworld. A timeless concept, as old as humanity itself, the Underworld represents the kingdom of the dead, the place where our lives end, but also a place we might intentionally mythically descend to, to undertake a heroic journey, a deeper exploration, a confrontation of the limits and possibilities of being human, a kind of existential initiation.
It’s a word that kept coming up for me this year, (is that thanks to you Siri? Big Data?) as I encountered writers like Sandy Ibrahim, Amanda Yates Garcia and Martin Shaw, who try to parse meaning from news headlines, whose idea of bigger picture involves mythology and ancestors and cosmic time.
What I gleaned from those thinkers is that we could possibly think of this pandemic time, this “lockdown Lite” experience, as an opportunity to be initiated. An invitation to take things seriously. To go deep. To be confronted. To stop running around like the White Rabbit -“I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!” – and turn bravely and acknowledge Death. (“Oh hi. It’s you. Are we scheduled to get together yet? I was hoping for sometime circa 2075?”) It’s an invitation to shed some stuff – some of the ego’s favourite props, and to emerge out the other side a little wiser, a little more concentrated… rather than just annoyed and anxious to reclaim my old life, exactly as was. Seems worth pondering, at the very least – that maybe COVID-19 might offer some insight to help us navigate the bigger climate emergency looming stage left. Maybe this moment could be seized as a threshold into a different way of being, instead of just an interruption to our regular programming. In attempting to resource myself for this bigger quest, I have been best served by insights and practices from some wonderful local meditation and wisdom teachers. (Obviously, these days, geography is no limitation, but it astounds me that this talent is literally right here. Check out Susan Reifer’s ongoing free meditation series with the Whistler Public Library. Natalie Rousseau’s online offering in attuning to the deep wisdom of the seasons, The Witches Year, starts October 31.) An invitation I heard from both of them was to allow myself to feel supported – to literally sit and close my eyes and feel my bones pressing down upon the ground and the floor meeting me, all the bits of my house holding things up and the earth beneath that, everything rising up to meet the parts of me that settled down.
I might have felt alone in my spinning mind, but when I was invited to pay attention, I became aware that I was being met. I was being supported. In palpable tangible ways – hello floorboards, hello supportive ground under my feet, hello friends dropping off a care package of chocolate at the end of my driveway or delivering a loaner juicer for my apple juicing experiment.
And in less tangible ones. As I first lamented all the things and people I was missing, the falling away of all the things that used to prop my ego up, the shock of lost momentum, the loss of all that had suddenly been cancelled, I would walk outside and sense the trees creating a kind of open-air church around me, all steadfast and able to contain the leakages of my emotions. And when I got curious about the idea that my great-grandmothers probably lived through pandemics, and wars and famines and way-gnarly things, and did a little ancestry research, I arrived at this powerful sense that I am now the garden, I am now the physical matter in which my ancestors have the opportunity to flourish. I am the place of bloom. I am the landscape of Life and vitality, and they are all informing that, nourishing that, infusing that with richness, with the compost of their own lives. They’re cheering me on, from within my very own cells.
So, mid-October, when I found a brief window through which I could race out to the garden, clear a few beds, and insert cloves, I was in a different frame of mind – one in which, instead of working in a hopeful-but-not-really-convinced state of reclaiming life, growth, gardening and garlic independence, I became reclaimed. I was reclaimed by my ancestors, by the soil, by the life force, by the trees around me. I tucked each clove into the soil knowing, without doubt, that those little cloves were not being cast out into an uncertain future, but that they were being offered back to Life, returned to soil that I tend with care, that I nourish with compost. It is not me, casting long-shot hopes into the emptiness. It is me settling down and receiving an immense amount of support that rises up to meet me, from every imaginable direction. Invisible, sure. But, even though I don’t see it, I sense it. I sense it now.
This year, I have come to believe in the Intelligence of All Things, an intelligence that is encoded in all of us, a deep Knowing of what to do. As I finished reading Callanish Hospice Society founder, Janie Brown’s book Radical Acts of Love, I learned that this deep Knowing can even help us face our deaths, that the body knows how to navigate that threshold too.
I tucked the garlic in for their winter sleep, their journey to the Underworld, beneath a blanket of maple leaves that I had scraped up from around the yard, and as I brushed the soil off my hand’s, I whispered my little prayer. Only, this year, it wasn’t: “Well, I hope you know what to do now.” It was more of a wordless hum of thanks. Thank you, thank you, sleep well, see you on the other side. For, come spring, they will rise again, and it won’t be a surprise. Because this is what Life does. It returns. It sprouts forth, it blossoms, it revels, it fruits, it pares away, it dies, it is absorbed, and it returns. And into this cycle, we belong.