Beginnings

Lately I’ve been starting each day working in the garden. The rains have helped the weeds go mad, but I don’t mind. I find weeding meditative, and I like the instant gratification — a wed bed looks so much better than an unwed bed. 

We have Creeping Charlie in our yard, another thing I don’t mind. My nephew, when he was young, would run to the purple blooms, pick them one by one, and suck the drop of nectar from the short tube. The bees also like these flowers.

I took a class on plants years ago, and the instructor said they used to mix Creeping Charlie seed in with grass seed because it does so well in the shade. But poor Charlie has fallen out of favor.

When I begin by working in the garden, I feel solid all day long. 

Our word “bud” is derived from ancient words in four other languages that mean

“pod,” “purse,” “bag,” and “swollen.”

Spring is strange. It has to do with the onset of warm, sunny weather, and with other beginnings: biking season, boating season, and gardening season. But, even as we appreciate all this, we become acutely aware of loss. We have been given this wonderful thing, which has so much potential, but we feel it slipping through out fingers. I saw cottonwood fluff floating through the air while I was waiting for a red light to change the other day and I thought, “Oh no. It is already that time.” Same with seeing the iris in bloom. And now the peonies. Wow. This season we love is moving along.

I was a budding English major in my teens, and I used to recite to myself the first stanza of the poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” by Robert Herrick:

 

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, 

Old time is still a-flying:

And this same flower that smiles to-day

To-morrow will be dying.

This is a guy who was devoted to beginnings. The poem actually has three more stanzas:

The glorious lamp of Heaven, the sun,

The higher he’s a-getting,

The sooner will his race be run.

And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,

When youth and blood are warmer;

But being spent, the worse and worst

Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,

And while ye may, go marry:

For having lost but once your prime,

You may for ever tarry.

The poet, Robert Herrick, was born in England in 1591. Those proposing marriage, understandably, have often used his poem. Herrick was a sensualist, and in the poem he urges virgins to take the leap, to go ahead and marry, and to live lusciously, but Herrick himself was a life-long bachelor. In his early poems he wrote often about lovemaking, but he was never publicly associated with any actual flesh-and-blood woman.

According to “The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images,” “The ancient Greek counterpart to Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, was named Chloris, meaning “green.” Zephyr, the gentle west wind, enamored of Chloris, pursued her, and as he overtook the maiden, flowers spilled from her lips, and they were subsequently married.”

I still have my Norton Anthology of Poetry from my college days (back in the 1970s), and I see it devotes 10 pages to Robert Herrick’s work. It seems he is best known for his Gather ye rosebuds poem. It, of course, is about all things being ephemeral, yet the poem has survived for well over 300 years. 

According to Wikipedia, Robert Herrick’s main message in his body of work was that life is short, the world is beautiful, love is splendid, and we must use the short time we have to make the most of it.

Funny thing, though. Not only did he never marry. Herrick’s life was not short. He lived to be 83. 

There is a good book on Buddhism called “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” by Shunryu Suzuki. He, like Herrick, believes in embracing beginnings. But the Buddhist teacher urges us to honor innocence, rather than to chase after experience. We feel we have to strive to become worldly, accomplished people, but that may only muddy the waters. Shunryu Suzuki writes, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

If we have beginner’s mind — that is, an empty mind, a vast mind — we can really learn something. We can be compassionate. We can be true to ourselves, and in sympathy with all beings. He says to be very, very careful about this point, because it is the secret of Zen practice. He also suggests it is the secret to a good life.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.