Someone once told me to “find a place where you feel God and go there often,” advice I follow to Elkins Park when I need a retreat from the world. There are many places there I feel God, though the old rose garden is my favorite. Not many people even know about the garden. It's far removed from the new paths. I love the feeling of the grass on my bare feet as I cut across to get to it. In the garden there's an old gray stone altar, almost completely overgrown with roses and other shrubs.
There has always been room for me, and on that altar I offer myself to the experience my heart and soul are ready for. I've come here many times soul-sick, scared, and broken-hearted and left healed, calm, and feeling loved unconditionally. My God always provides for me, and gratefully I receive. Sometimes it's the clarity of a thought or the absence of one. Sometimes it's just the quiet sounds of the garden silencing the noise in my head so I can hear my truth. Often it is just a peaceful, soulful respite.
Today I start my offering the same as always: I climb up on the stone slab, lie back, close my eyes, and breathe deeply, slowly, rhythmically. As I begin to drift I think, “This must be what it feels like to be dead, and...”
I am in the living room of my ancestors' house, resting on a marble top table chilled by blocks of ice, among those who love me. The ice is melting into a copper basin. Sweat from the basin is bleeding onto the floor. There is already a watermark there; many have rested here before me. There is no pain or sadness here. We are never really apart from each other, so there is no need. We have transcended all of that.
Something is leaving me and the vision passes with it. I'm in the garden again. The process has begun.
It is early May and at first touch the stone feels warm from the spring sun. A deep coolness seems to come from within the stone itself, memories of winter days past that still linger. It is a light gray color created by a blend of black, silver, and white flecks and veins that run throughout the surface. It is by its very nature hard, though it also feels welcoming, supportive, and safe. I continue to breathe and let the weight of my body go. Soon it is hard to feel where the stone begins and I end. I have no idea how long I've been here as I realize there was a passing of something into the stone, with peacefulness in it's leaving. I am lighter. As this realization moves through me, the sun comes out from behind the clouds. I feel its increased warmth, a breeze moves gently across my skin. The sounds of the garden begin to return.
Slowly I begin to let my senses wash over me. First, the heat of the sun, stronger now on my face, neck, and body. The birds seem to be singing louder, and the trees dance and whisper in the breeze--it has picked up. It caresses my skin. I turn my face into it, aware of every muscle I use in my neck, shoulders, and upper back. Painfully aware of the effort it now takes to do such a simple thing as turning my head, the limits that were never there, and the unyielding fear of these changes. I look at these muscles from within myself and relax each muscle again, one by one.
Finally, I am able to rest my head with my left cheek against the stone. I rubbed my neck and shoulders with Tiger Balm before I came here and they're tingling now, heated and cooled by the stone and the balm. The smell of oil of clove, wintergreen, menthol, camphor, eucalyptus, spiked lavender oil, and other herbs in Tiger Balm has mingled with my scent and the smell of the stone. I can smell its age, dry and weathered and my salty, spicy, and vibrant sweat. It is my scent mixed with my God's. A perfume my soul still wears.
I turn my head to the other side and begin to feel and look within at the rest of my body. The stone under me feels strong supportive and safe; it can bear the weight of this inspection. Here in the garden, I can, too. I'm soothed by how the stone feels to my aching neck, shoulders, and back, and the fear subsides. In its wake comes a new perspective. My neck still holds my head up to face the day and all it will bring. My back is still strong. Strong now in how it carries this damaged body with grace and dignity, expands my rib cage gently with each deep breath. Strong enough to hold a heart broken, yet still loving, a soul evolving, sometimes struggling under the weight of change and the pain of this body as it heals. I am still powerful enough to continue the journey.
I move next to the small of my back and my hips. The pain throughout the left side of my body is oddly balanced by the painless, though fatigued, right side. As I bend my knees and shift my weight, I am awed by the compassion the right side of my body carries the left with. This is something that I have missed these years since I was hurt and forced into this body unwillingly. Slowly now I stretch out my legs, allowing myself to really feel both sides of my body at once. Feeling them together now, not comparatively, not as separate places I'm torn between, wanting to be only in the right side and abandoning the left, overwhelmed with the terrible frightening sense of loss that always comes from the comparison. Instead, the wonder, awareness, and appreciation of the miracle of healing and harmony this body has achieved take hold. I've often said, “I'm beside myself--literally,” as if the right side was the real me, and the left a cruel imposter. Both are beautiful, graceful, and alive, and both are me. I can feel that truth now.
It has rained off and on all week, and as I lie here, the rain begins again. It falls softly, quietly, like it's being sprinkled from the wings of the birds and the leaves of the trees. The sun is still out, and the roses are sparkling with raindrops. I close my eyes again and feel the drops as they fall on my face, eyes, and cheeks, tasting the rain on my lips. It is falling lightly, soaking the garden and me slowly. At some point I realize that I am hearing “Love Rain” (my favorite rain song) in my head. I have to smile, it feels so good. I stay like this till my whole body is wet, replenished, nurtured.
When I sit up, I can see the outline that my body left on the stone, a dry impression of me. I move over and watch the rain gently, slowly, softly fill the space I was just in. The outline takes on a new form gradually, the old outline changing slowly. Here is the lesson I had resisted, was unable to see, for too long. When the dry spot is completely covered in rain, the outline of me is still visible. There is a subtle difference in the color of the stone, in the dry place as it absorbs the rain against the already soaked surface. I watch as my form slowly fades, becoming as shiny and richly colored by the rain as the rest of the stone. I am watching myself become whole, absorbing the love and compassion freely being given to me. A sense of separation is gone, and I am more whole than I have been in years.
The rain becomes fuller, not hard at all; the birds are singing a quiet rain song, the trees and roses create percussion as the raindrops hit them. The garden is reveling in the rain and the promise of growth it brings with it. I am, too. The heat of the day is washed away by the scent of the wet soil, plants, grass, and stone. Everything smells so alive. I feel so alive!
When all traces of me are gone, I walk back to the retreat house more aware of every smell, color, and sound. Fully present to how my body carries itself, how good it feels to feel again, to really be alive. As I am getting out of my wet clothes, the Pretenders song “A Hymn to Her” comes into my head, like music from another room:
“She will always carry on. Something is lost--something is found
They will keep on speaking her name--some things change, some stay the same.
Let me inside you, inside your room...
I've heard it's lined with the things you don't show...”
Today it feels like open house.
Bio: Joanne McMenamy grew up in Philadelphia, got married and moved to New Jersey. She entered Rutgers University at 35 to pursue a BA in English Literature with a minor in Women's Studies. After a six-year leave of absence, she returned to school in January 2003 and this essay is one of her first pieces. She loves reading, museums, live music, foreign films and naps. She has two daughters, two cats and a dog. Taking the advice of a variety of friends, psychiatrists and lawyers that she should write a book, it's in the works. It has been a full life, rich in experience, and it's not even half over.