(Copyright © 2009)

But enough of my own consciousness. I am also interested in how other people experience their own minds. Since I do not have direct access to other minds in other bodies leading other lives, I leave the reporting of what they discover through personal introspection to them as being complementary to my own research.

From time to time I will post (as guest blogs) such reports as I come across them. Today I have permission to share a piece recently published in the Vassalboro Quarter Newsletter, “A Garden of Forgiveness” by Maggie Edmondson, who lives in Readfield, Maine. Maggie writes, “I am very interested in imagination and the spiritual power of metaphor.”

A GARDEN of FORGIVENESS

Maggie Edmondson

While I was in England this time last year the Chelsea Flower Show was in full swing. There were something like thirty 10×20 gardens created for the event by landscape artists and for several evenings there were shows about them on the television. As a garden lover I enjoyed this tremendously and noted down features I thought I might be able to incorporate in my own garden.

But I also wondered how people might benefit from the garden idea who had no land to plant. My imagination started to work with the idea of designing an inner garden. How would that garden look and feel and smell? Would it be all tranquil shades of green as some of those Chelsea gardens were, maybe accented with a few pure white flowers? Would it have waterfalls or other water features to give it an element of purification and regeneration? Would it be a riot of color to replace a sense of bleakness? Would its form be simple and elegant or strange and fanciful? I had a feeling that if we were to allow our hearts and imaginations to do their nonverbal, image-building work, we might create individualized inner garden retreats which would feed our souls.

Then, through one of those wonderful “coincidences” when I attended meeting that Sunday a Friend who was a keen gardener spoke about her struggles to forgive things from her past. She expressed it as a desire to plant a garden of forgiveness. My imaginings of an inner garden became focused over the next few days toward an inner garden of forgiveness. I started to choose plants appropriate to my memories of places or people—a mulberry tree, a wall covered in climbing roses, bluebells, primroses and blackberry bushes, a stream with stepping stones. I also remembered some of the attributes traditionally associated with certain plants:

Gerbera daisies for beauty and innocence—what a wonderful thing to plant where there has been ugliness and abuse;

Irises for faith, hope and wisdom where there has been despair or lack of direction;

Vines for new life, regeneration in those places which seem dead and withered;

Honeysuckle for generosity where there has been selfishness or closed-fistedness;

Roses for love and admiration, where there has been anger or hatred or lack of appreciation; and

Forget-me-Nots, whose name says it all.

That garden lives vividly within my imagination, within my spirit. I can walk its pathways, experience its healing presence, feel the spirit of the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Thanks be to God who speaks to us in so many ways, including our imaginations.

Iris-72

(Copyright © 2009)

 

First drafts reveal a writer’s mind at work in real time. Subsequent edits lessen the integrity of that first record even if they might improve its orderliness. It is risky taking polished writing as evidence of a writer’s creative process. In Thoreau’s case, he frequently reworked his journal entries, and perhaps made changes suggested by others. So in trying to reconstruct his mental state from evidence provided by a paragraph in Walden, I am in danger of skidding on black ice. Upfront I am forced to admit that the Thoreauvian mind I point to may be a pure fiction, or at best a hybrid of my consciousness mixed with his.

 

For starters, I offer this single sentence from the section on shelter in the first chapter of Walden where Thoreau recounts gathering materials and preparing the site for his famous cabin in the woods: “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” The reference to all houses—the very idea of a house—is the heart of the sentence. “A sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” is the arrow Thoreau aims at that heart to show how he intends it to be experienced. But without any supporting context, it seems farfetched and anything but clear. Some might claim this to be metaphor, but if it is, it is failed or ersatz metaphor because it lacks the setting necessary to allow interpretation.

 

Language, like consciousness itself, is situational. Its use and meaning depend on the setting in which it occurs. Without a grasp of that setting, words seem to tumble from the sky into minds ill prepared to receive them in the spirit the writer intends. This one sentence is not a metaphor at all—it is gibberish—because it is stripped from any situation which might make it meaningful. To remedy that deficiency, I here provide the relevant paragraph within which it is set. After telling how he got the planks and nails for his cabin, he goes on to describe in concrete detail his digging of the cellar hole:

 

I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours’ work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.

 

Here in a single paragraph are five of the chief ingredients of consciousness: motivation, perceptual details, feeling, conceptual meaning, and sense of order and progression (verging on the aesthetic). Motivation: need to store winter food in a year-round dwelling. Sensory details: side of hill, sloping south, woodchuck hole, sumach [we now do without the h] and blackberry roots, organic soil, size of hole, down to a layer of fine sand, shelving sides, dampness, two hours time. Feeling: pleasure in doing the job right, that is, in the traditional manner for the practical reason. Meaning: in hot climes or cold, in rural areas and cities, food preservation depends on root cellars with an equable temperature. Aesthetics: the recounting of the experience from details through feelings and understanding to grand consummation.

 

Only on that carefully laid foundation does Thoreau lay down the metaphor tying his experience together in one image: The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow. Without proper build-up, that sentence is merely a puzzle driving us to wonder what it means. Coming at the conclusion of the paragraph, we don’t have to wonder because we have been with Thoreau all the way as he shaped the image in his mind. It immediately explodes into our minds as a revelation or culmination on three fronts at once: his conscious experience of digging a root cellar, his writing about that experience, and our effort to share that experience through his writing.

 

The essence of creativity is to unite key dimensions of human consciousness into a coherent experience in which others can participate. When sensory patterns, feelings, and meanings combine, they can reach a critical mass that releases a burst of energy—not just in our brains—but throughout our bodies. Nerve signals and hormones confirm something of life importance has just occurred and is continuing to resonate here and now. Writing can convey that sense, as can music, art, dance, film, and other media of conscious excitation.

 

The paragraph quoted from Walden illustrates how aspects of consciousness can be brought to bear on one another in relationship to incite experiences larger and more meaningful than the sum of their parts. This is more than a matter of delight and entertainment. This is how we make sense of the world from our unique points of view. When the pieces fit, we feel we understand what is happening as participants in the event. Group energy and order are conveyed to us, and we reciprocate as best we can.

 

There is more to metaphor than meets ear or eye. It is an invitation to make meaning in new ways. This keeps the process of making meaning in sharp focus, where it cannot be taken for granted. As participants, we must do our part to keep the making of meaning in new ways alive in our experience. This alertness prevents meanings from becoming permanent fixtures of language—much as the dead are permanently dead, never to rise again. Dead languages fixed for all time kill the drive of their speakers to make meaning on their own.

 

If all has been said and written before, what’s the point of saying anything new or original? Of going beyond where we are now? Those who cling to past ways and expressions do not live in this world—the world of today. To claim that all wisdom is contained in the works of Plato or Aristotle, say, or the Qur’an, Torah, or Christian Testament is a denial of personal participation in the ongoing challenge of conscious life. When speech loses its novel, figurative quality, it ossifies into a literal form in which words are taken to mean exactly what they say and nothing more, as if the ancients had thought everything through for all time.

 

If that should happen to be true, how can anyone alive today hope to contribute to solving the problems yesterday has bequeathed to us? How can we direct our creative energies to undoing the mess people have made to now of living on planet Earth? No, if global warming, energy, poverty, healthcare, economics, and militarism are to be dealt with, it is up to those of us alive today to focus consciously and deliberately on the problems of today. In his time, Plato had his turn, followed by Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, Thoreau, and all the rest. Now it is Barack Obama’s turn to unify the diverse constituents of modern-day consciousness, and so confront them. Not for us, but with us all the way.

 

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