From Junkyard to Garden

In 2006, I was working as an IT consultant in New York City. One spring day, I was stressed out, as usual, running up the subway steps and rushing to Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. When I arrived, my client greeted me warmly and asked me if we could meet in her garden.

The lush, sunshine-filled garden was an unexpected enclave of peace and beauty among the tall brick buildings. I could still hear street traffic, but the cars felt far away. My body relaxed as we sat at a table in the center of the garden. Bright orange climbers ascended the side of the oasis. Deep purple veined petals spotted the far wall with a few bright green bushes were grouped to the right.

I told her that she was so lucky to have this sanctuary.

“Yes, but it wasn’t like this when I arrived,” the young woman replied. “It was a dump. It smelled; it was horrible. You have no idea!”

She proudly went on to describe how she had inherited a lot filled with fragments of furniture, bicycle parts, trash, and glass. Nearly every weekend for a year, her friends helped her remove the junk. Then they brought in soil, worked the ground, tilled the land, fertilized it, and finally planted seeds.

Although I never saw the Chelsea gardener again, I have recalled her plot many times. The evidence of transformation touched me, how she changed something terrible into something beautiful.

Her lush garden caused me to ponder: What do I want to create from the landfill my family and society piled into my ground? I remembered growing up in a home where my mom hurled insults at me every day, where shame, fear, and loneliness jabbed at me constantly. I did not want to be present. To escape, I lost myself in television, daydreams, and books. As I got older, I took long walks along the quietest most tree-lined streets in East Flatbush, Brooklyn — roaming down Clarendon, Cortelyou Road, or Avenue D to the local library, the West Indian ice cream shop, or Mostly Books shop. Even though my mind was sometimes flooded with cascades of internalized “I hate you’s” and other negative self-judgments, I also found peace gazing at sun filled branches with the feel of my foot against the sidewalk or the occasional leaf in my hand amid the silence of a quiet beautiful street. I had begun to build my internal garden through solitude, relating to the “now;” a foreshadowing of what I was later to develop more in  my meditation practices.

Meditation has become one of my tools for clearing and cultivating my internal “garden” and, thus, my piece of mind. It is so hard to explain why I love meditation because sometimes it feels like torture. When a knotted memory brought to the surface painful emotions, thoughts and sensations, I became certain that I would die if they didn’t go away. But instead of running, I’d practice sitting or walking meditation, learning how to detangle myself from my tangles. Joseph Goldstein, one of my teachers, has a saying: “The thought of your mother is not your mother. The thought of your mother is just a thought.”

At times, I felt so captive to my inner critic, my mom’s doppelganger, that it pervaded my being. I craved an exorcism. I was caved in around the painful moments from my memory as if I had a magnifying glass that only saw the pain between my mom and me. Meditation helped me develop equanimity with my story and its constituent thoughts. My teacher Andrea Fella explained to me during a three month retreat that difficult emotions and sensations often have many layers like an onion: as we explore the rings with sensitivity, we can come to understand  how our reactivity manifests as fear, aversion, and hate; and let go. I wanted to overcome the pain as expeditiously as I could but she warned that forcing myself to the center of the pain is violence to myself. Instead, she suggested that we open ourselves with kindness to each layer that we are experiencing in the moment.

Phoenix Soleil is an artist, activist and teacher. She is passionate about the intersections of community, emotional intelligence and trauma. She is a partner at LIFT Economy where she helps businesses increase their emotional intelligence and collaboration skills. She has led trainings in communication, racial justice and emotional resiliency for individuals, groups, and organizations such as Google, Kellogg Foundation, UC Berkeley, and Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Check out her website for upcoming trainings, and more info on her artistic endeavors:

The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun’s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article or to download the PDF version.

Tikkun 2018 Volume 33, Number 1/2:42-46


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