Lessons from the garden

Often when I get to this point in the year I find myself looking back and reflecting on how quickly the past twelve months have seemed to have passed by. But this year quite the reverse is true: I’m not wondering where all the time went, but pondering how many memories seem to fill the past 300 days. The snow, the passing of a loved one, travels in Arabia, the hard slog in the garden, friends visiting-visiting, the adoption assessments, the family holiday, a month of fasting, visiting friends…  It has been a busy year.

Where the garden is concerned, it appears to be a metaphor for my entire life. Keeping it under control and pulling it into shape requires hard work of the highest order. Whenever I neglect it, it is suddenly sprawling out of control until only another bout of hard slog will suffice. It can be a disheartening affair. In late spring the garden was a picture of beauty—and in some ways my heart was in reasonable shape too—but by the end of summer it was a mess once more, and so too was my soul. It could be that hard work on the land is some kind of treatment for my soul.

Transforming a garden path from this…

to this…

was backbreaking work. But it was worth it. In the solitude of the task, I was found conversing within, carrying me far from the lower calls of my self. And at the end of the day, there was no energy left to sin.

I remember the pride when I conquered the vegetable patch, eradicating every weed in the ground…

but alas, weeding is a constant task and within weeks the weeds were once more dominating the plot, my pride long forgotten, as in my heart.

But perhaps there is reason to be optimistic. We conquered that old, rotting out-house…

though sometimes anger was my fuel, not protein.

And though sometimes it seemed like a mountain too vast to climb…

…in time, with patience and perseverance, and hard work, the unconquerable became but a distant memory…

until at last we achieved our goal.

But more to the point was the realisation that the true beauty of the garden is from Allah.

We don’t make the flowers bloom or call upon the butterflies.

We try our best in life, of course, but true beauty comes from above. With this realisation comes immesaurable ease.

My Heart

On Friday evening I came across an article which really resonated with me. I wanted to contact the author, but I decided to sleep on it first, to mull over my thoughts. This was an article in which the author wrote about what traditional Islam meant to him. Part of that description included this sentiment: “It is the Islam of the quaint villages…”

It resonated with me because for weeks now I have been thinking of a faraway place I passed through last summer. It also touched me because there is a part of me which does not sit well with the modern age. Throughout my teenage years I was something of an eccentric. While my friends were interested in mountain bikes, football, Nintendo and Baywatch, I was a dreamer. I yearned after a romantic past, of a wood-framed house surrounded by the cottage garden, of self-sufficiency, spring-fed waters, of the homestead farm. I would sketch out my rough architectural diagrams of my self-build Tudor house. My favourite book as a child was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy: I imagined I was Almanzo and I dreamed of living my life as he had all those years ago. Later – this probably led to my eventual arrival as a student of development studies – my attention turned to sub-Saharan Africa. An article about life in Burkina Faso inspired me in a way you could not imagine.

With the wisdom of age, of course I now realise that all those dreams were indeed for a romantic past. The reality of life is that it is hard: inoculated from birth against mumps and rubella, and against tetanus, living in an age protected from TB, and able to access an education from the age of five to twenty-one, we forget the realities of existence in different times and different places. Still, that was my dream and an element of it remains with me even today. Something has been bothering my heart of late and that article I read on Friday gave me an inkling of what it was: a kind of discomfort with the age we are living in.

Last summer I spent a couple of weeks up in the highlands of eastern Turkey with my mother-in-law, up above the clouds. My wife’s family originate in Hopa on the Black Sea, close to the border with Georgia in Artvin province. Every year, to escape the summer heat, my mother-in-law packs up her possessions like the nomads of old and ascends the mountains for the refuge of that usually cooler air. Life up there is quite primitive: the houses are simple stone-walled structures without cement, covered with the tarpaulin these travellers bring with them. The evening meal is prepared on wood burning stoves, which in turn warms the shelter as the cold evening draws in.

So last August my wife and I began the journey in the early morning one Friday, looking forward to our reunion with her mother after such a long time. There is a vast dam building project underway in the valley between our village just inland from Hopa and Artvin, so we had to leave at first light so we could travel while the road along the bottom of the valley was still open. We travelled inland rising steadily higher and higher into the mountains. At around 11am we stopped in Ardanuc to get some vegetables and have a rest, but not for too long. Soon we were winding up a dirt track through this beautiful landscape which reminded me of my holidays in Switzerland as a child. It was a steep landscape of meadows, streams and log chalets. Alas, we forgot our camera so there are no photographs I could share with you, but take my word for it: this was a landscape which almost made me cry tears of joy. We were heading for a Yayla about two hours short of Ardahan, but I could have stopped just there, so magnificent was that scenery.

But we continued onwards, until we came to a camping ground on the side of a valley where we stopped for lunch. There was a shack on the edge in which a group of men were preparing to barbeque cubes of lamb meat. I sat down on a bench with the lady-folk close to an ice-cold spring, for we had just discovered that the men were chilling bottles of Turkish spirits beneath the bubbling surface. After lunch, leaving my male travelling companions to their Reki and the ladies to their conversation, I caught a lift with an old Muslim man back to the mosque for Jummah prayer. I speak very little Turkish, but that ride was an immense blessing: we exchanged salams and I watched as those I had left behind appeared as dots across the valley.

It was this trip to the mosque that has been in my thoughts for these past many weeks, which made that article strike such a chord with me on Friday. I should think that mosque has never seen an English Muslim enter its doors before in all its ancient history. We parked our car just off the road, because the mosque could only be reached on foot. Together, communicating with one another only by hand gestures and that brotherly fondness in our hearts, we walked up the hill through that village that seemed to be caught in a time warp. There was a water-trough fed by a stream out in front of the mosque – what a beautiful sight. But what touched my heart was the sight in the small garden in front of that place of prayer. All of the men were gathered in a circle, awaiting the call of the adhan, expressing such affection for one another, conversing with kind words. We exchanged salams, but I did not join them, entering the mosque instead with my old companion. That building seemed centuries old inside. It was dark, and yet it seemed light. The walls were stone, not decorated like those fine mosques of Istanbul. There were some pieces of calligraphy, and old worn out rugs on the floor. There was a spirit in that mosque which warmed my soul. That place has been in my thoughts.

The tale of the remainder of my journey up into the mountains is for another time. This post is about that place in my heart. It is not a geographical place, but an emotional place. That place that the author described: “It is the Islam of the quaint villages…” Yes, this is the yearning of my heart. That place of true brotherhood outside the mosque, that place of a simplicity that does not care for our modern-day obsessions with labels and debates. That place where Allah is remembered, where life stops for the prayer, where brothers respect one another and welcome the stranger passing through. That place of beauty.

Allah knows best my heart. This weekend I have made a resolve. Allah knows best my heart. I cannot articulate yet what this is: not to you the reader. But its origin lies in that experience that has been on my mind all these weeks. Inshallah, with time I will explain. In time I will explain.