By Tammy T. Stone
Japan is known for its gorgeous countryside, but the cities are a muted riot in grey.
I grew up in cities and suburbs of cities and by the time I lived and worked in Toronto, I couldn’t imagine my identity as anything other than a cosmopolitan one; somehow, for me, this meant that I was almost not allowed to have a garden, even plants. I tried having a few, and all but the strongest would wither under the porous weight of my inattention. Looking back, I cry for each and every one of those plants.
Then, for over three years, my husband and I, as backpack-carrying, guesthouse-hopping citizens of the Earth’s Far East, found our selves living quite freely among nature’s offerings.
At varying times, we could watch, virtually in our own backyard, horses stomping on wheat, rice being harvested, flowers being dipped ceremoniously into great rivers, coconuts being fetched from the tallest palm trees, tides coming and going, and the leaves, flowers and trees thriving in their unhinged freedom under the sun, in rainy seasons, through dry spells of enduring heat.
Watching nature be her self, I never felt closer to Her, but I was also ever so aware of my own distance from all these majestic goings-on, as a very fumbling member of the human species.
This feeling of being apart from the unfolding of life is not unfamiliar to me.
Since I was little, I’ve been consumed by the feeling of not being a true, active part in my surroundings. In some ways, I never really grew out of the feeling that I was in the passenger seat—maybe even the baby seat—of my own life. I would often feel alienated within social settings, and even when I was fully enjoying myself with a given group of friends. Things didn’t feel quite complete until I could come home and think it through, usually by writing in my journal.
I dove into books and became one with the worlds unfolding in them, each time. When the book ended and I was neither here nor there; wrested from the book-world, and not fully comfortable in my own.
I think for a long time, something in me was resisting the idea that I was capable or deserving of deep and long-lasting relationships with people (though I did have them), because this would presume an intimate acceptance of myself as part of the group, and even more, part of this great, wide world of ours. The work before me was long, and when the time came, I was more than ready to get down in the trenches, to begin the work of helping myself find my place.
It was in Laos that I was able to put down some roots and really begin this excavation of self.
There was something about the tiny towns nestled in the most nurturing, comparatively enormous mountains; the rivers trinkling by, the mamas who allowed me to sit at their house-side food stalls to eat their soups and be among them in the most kindhearted of silences. Their arms, like the mountains, engulfing us, extended down in the warmest embrace, as if to say, over and over, “You can just be. You are welcome. Please, just be.”
My time in Laos stays close to me, reminding me of a more natural, collective heritage in which we come that much closer to the world in which we live. Whether I was making tea from aromatic leaves I found on my walks, doing stretches on my cabin’s bamboo front porch, or learning the stories of the many new people I crossed paths with, a coming-together was slowly coming into being.
Which brings me to my balcony garden in Japan, and the seasons I’ve now had to spend time with the plants on it.
This is the first year since moving out of my parents’ house almost 20 years ago that I’ve had a garden.
I live on the seventh floor of an eight-story building, which by Japanese standards, is a highrise. My view on all sides, except for one, is a decidedly green-less one.
My husband is a natural caretaker, of plants too, but he was working very long hours, so it fell to me to tend to the plants; this time I was ready—more than ready. I was thrilled to have this communion, to see which plants looked sad, which were stoic and didn’t need me as much, which ones were too far from one another and wanted to be neighbours.
In our small, shared space, we passed the winter (many of them came inside during the cold), learning tiny little things every day, maybe not fully noticing the quietude enveloping us. At times, stormy moods got the better of me and felt as interminable as winter itself, and sometimes I was able to recognize that they would pass.
Suddenly a riot of green exploded. Spring! My heart sang.
I hadn’t noticed that the plants were hibernating, taking their time and preserving their energy; I hardly realized I’d been doing the same. Their spring-tethered vibrancy barreled at me as a much-needed, if shocking lesson:
It’s okay to feel apart, to feel small, to feel things are not moving. Sometimes things need to feel this way. When the time is right, and you’ll know when it is, your movement will be unstoppable, and it will be glorious.
I don’t know how it came to be that the great mountains of Laos brought me closer to myself, so that I could come into greater communion with the life around me, but I am forever grateful, and eager to see how it all unfolds.
Tammy T. Stone is a Canadian writer, photographer and chronicler of life as it passes through us. Always a wanderer, she’s endlessly mesmerized by people, places and everything in between; the world is somehow so vast and so small. She feels so lucky to have been able to work, learn, live and travel far and wide, writing, photographing and wellness-practicing along the way. She invites you to see some of her recent photography here and to connect with her on her writer’s page, Twitter and her blog, There’s No War in World.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak