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Pining for Amateurs
By R.E. Faro | Faro steps solo into his garden to search for gratitude, find comfort in his mugo pine and pick up the shears again.

I stand on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto waiting for the 10 o’clock tour to start. It’s a cold, hazy January day. A trio of gardeners on tripod ladders prunes one of the tall pines nearby. Needles dribble onto tarps as they work. The gardeners seldom pause to determine the next snip or stripping, their hands busy as weavers’ hands, with a familiarity akin to intimacy. The tree is wide enough that all three can work on the unpruned half and not crowd each other. The elisions they make in the dense canopy delicately sift the light. I try to impress upon my mind the calligraphic precision, to absorb some sound truth about angle and density. Each tiny branch is another idiom. I know there are rules being followed, a grammar, but I can’t read it, only the result. It comes as a relief to discover a rare, unseemly stub, or a dab of sunlight too generous, leading me to wonder if ordinary humans can do this, whether I might try it at home.

I want to commend the gardeners, but speak no Japanese. I would bow if they would glance at me but they don’t. They have at least 50 more trees to do.

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The thought arises that I might skip the Zen garden at Ryoan-ji because I have seen it a hundred times in pictures. I had a similar thought in Florence about the statue of David.

“Shoes, there,” the ticket attendant gesticulates when I walk onto a platform clearly designated shoe-free. These thick barbarians, I imagine her saying to the woman seated beside her. How do you say “sorry”? I select some slippers and try to fit my feet into them, two-thirds successfully. Abashed, I shuffle through a dim wooden room toward a dazzling whiteness, a glimpse of the famous stones. I nearly squeal. How un-Zen is that?

For 30 seconds I stand alone on the wooden veranda. A crow scoops holes out of the silence. A group of teenage students arrives, and soon after, other visitors: solitaries, couples, groups of four. What do the 15 stones represent? Islands in the sea? A tiger leading her cubs? People used to debate such things. The garden is eloquent in its disinterestedness in what we make of it, whatever confetti the mind flings. I could meditate, yes, but I can meditate at home. Instead I sketch in my notebook the borders, the shapes and arrangement. I look around; two other people are sketching, with far more skill. The power of the garden comes not only from the raked quartz and the rocks in their islands of  moss, but also from the gray-violet

plaster walls on the south and west sides. I try to include them in my sketch, and abandon the travesty. Putting my notebook away, I stand and walk around on the veranda, testing whether what I once read is true, that you cannot see all 15 rocks simultaneously.

You can. What does this prove? I am alive and can count.

And scheme. I want a relic, one tiny bit of white quartz. The steps are roped off, with a request in English and Japanese to go no further. I could drop a brochure and it might tumble to the edge of the gravel. Unlikely. I could be bold, take three giant steps, bend quickly, grab a piece, and sit back down, but I am not bold. Instead I walk around to the eternally overlooked green garden adjacent, pick up a nondescript, round gray pebble and put it in my pocket.

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In the Arashiyama district, the bamboo forest. Blue-green culms soar skyward. A narrow road runs through the forest, skirted by waist-high fences of bamboo thatch, a wild tangle on top quickly brought to order by horizontal lengths of bamboo below. Here, as in Ryoan-ji, the frame brings all into focus. Here, too, nothing extraneous; an unearthly perfection. Some bamboo forests around Kyoto are said to be 1,200 years old. Is this the product of nature, joined with time’s annealing effects, or the work of gardeners, generations of them, forgotten but for this? Lives well spent, if so.

The road, it seems, should only lead further in, but it goes out, too quickly, back to my life.

Sweetly parading, soul of my soul, you pass by.
Don’t go without me.
Friend above friends, don’t stroll the garden without me.
Sky, don’t turn without me,
Moon, don’t shine without me.
—Rumi

The daphne, in bud when I left for Bali and Japan, was still unbuttoning when I got home. I was glad I hadn’t missed it. I was surprised how little the garden had changed. The acacias still lounged in their yellow slips. The plum trees were still a tease, not much further out of dormancy than their Kyoto cousins.

Then it hit. Some years it arrives like the Queen Mary, all flags and toots and sights. This year spring came like a bulldozer. Step lively or get crushed.

“I’m still not finished pruning the apples. They’re already leafed out,” I complained to my neighbor Rita one windy afternoon. The sun on my shoulders had a heft not felt for months. “Every day I say, today’s the day, and then plant myself in the recliner. I have no energy. I wonder if I should get myself checked out.”

“For heartache?”

“It’s not that. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“We won’t talk about it.”

“OK, there’s just one thing. I don’t get how you can love somebody one minute, or think you do, implying, of course, vice-versa and all that, and then, she’s out of your life. Like dead. It feels like my life has a disjointed plot.”

“It happens all the time.”

“I know I know. But it makes me question some deep beliefs, my—”

Beliefs. That’s all they are,” Rita said. “It’s the way you’re programmed. You’re a tragic-romantic. A real pro. Incidentally, when you’re busy pining, you might factor in how your dearly departed was, is, shall we say, a wee bit narcissistic. She couldn’t walk into a room without stumbling over a piece of furniture, she was so busy watching the effect of her entrance. People who wear that much pink . . . .”

“That was charming. She joked about it herself.”

“She was charming. And cute. And incapable of deep feelings. Maybe that’s not fair. Let’s say she was effectively inoculated against them.”

“I envy that.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

But I did envy that. Just glancing at the garden detonated mines. There was the camellia she gave me last spring, “Buttons and Bows.” A gift out of the blue; it wasn’t a birthday, or a holiday. I was touched, even though I had qualms about its candied pinkness, not to mention the cutesy name. I planted it, but not too close to the house. A couple of times last summer it dried out. There were dead branches at its center. One of its living branches was broken last winter, perhaps by a raccoon hurtling over the fence. Not one blossom formed this year, surely a blessing.

Reminding myself it’s not a metaphor, not its fault, I heaped mulch around it and gave it some fertilizer, even while there was a demonstration afoot, placards that read, “Yank it.”

These were the simpler feelings. Twice a day I walked down to the garage through a landscape that a year ago was a muddy consternation, holes where the boxwoods had been, stumps in place of cherry and fir trees. I acceded to the changes; I saw their merits, and still did, more or less.

“I’m not lying,” I said. “Have you ever awakened on somebody’s couch after a party and you’re not sure how you got there, and not sure you want to remember? That’s kind of how I feel in the garden.”

“Not lately. You need to do something to reclaim it. A ritual, maybe.”

I suppressed a groan. “Like an exorcism?”

“Something more accepting. My Buddhist teacher says, ‘Whatever happens is the right thing to happen.’ If you can find the gratitude, there is no problem.”

It should be reiterated that when ideas about gardens were borrowed, virtually no one correctly understood what they were borrowing.
—Teiji Itoh, The Gardens of Japan

Sunny, cool, Easter morning.

I’m in my recliner again, sleepily grazing through books on Japanese gardens. At Ryoan-ji, I read, you cannot see all 15 stones simultaneously, but once you are enlightened, you will be able to.

I must have miscounted.

I suddenly recall the gray pebble. Arisen from semi-recumbency, I search all the obscure pouches of my suitcase because I have an idea. I’ll do a ritual with it somehow, corny or not. Bury it. Isn’t that a venerable tradition? I might bury it beside the blue bamboo as a symbol. Of what? How about gratitude? Find the gratitude.

I don’t find the pebble. Still, I have decided that this will be the morning to test the waters, to descend the front steps and linger in the garden. I feel surprisingly tender as I go out the front door. It’s only a feeling, I tell myself, but that line was a shared joke with the “dearly departed.” Not a good start.

Right away the blue bamboo magnetizes the eye, playing light like a banjo. How it has grown in one year. The blue of these culms is a powdery, Caribbean blue, subtle yet sharp, refreshment to the eye. The purity of form, upright, unambiguous, doesn’t condescend to knotty emotions. Look at me, it says. What’s not to love? I’m no metaphor, either.

OK, I succumb, but not to the loropetalums, a variety named ‘Sizzling Pink.’ Yet I notice for the first time brand-new burgundy leaves tacked onto duller greenish ones, and the spidery pink flowers that give the plant its common name, fringe flower. I’ll linger for the time being on the fringe of affection.

What about these chondropetalums? Wiry, they look like they might run on electricity. One is acceptable, three are too many. On the other hand, the saucy geranium ‘Rozane’ with her perky two-toned blue flowers—let’s have more.

And over there, aloes in three incarnations. Alas and alack. I love them, too. Of course I do. I proposed them to you-know-who. We were in perfect agreement.

Not a good development: a regression from “her garden” to “our failed garden,” definitely a metaphor.

On the new brick patio sits a thing unashamedly and unambiguously mine: a mugo pine in a big blue pot; a companion for 23 years, enduring lean soil and leaner attention which potted pines, better than most pets, abide. In other words, it’s a wonder it’s alive and looks as good as it does. Though it has grown little, the pot is heavier; I noticed that when we moved it from the back deck down here. Despite being an old-timer amid the young set, it looks at home. If it were masterfully pruned . . . .

Moments ago I read that the initial “Japanese” pruning of a pine is virtually impossible for an amateur to do well. I am an amateur, ergo—but should that stop me? It’s either the secateurs or the recliner.

A possible ending, this beginning. Cut.

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Dispatches from Faro’s garden have appeared seasonally in The Monthly for more than a decade and were recently published as a collection by Ithuriel’s Spear Press.The book, entitled In Faro’s Garden, A Tour and Some Detours, is available at www.spdbooks.org, Amazon.com and Black Oak Books in Berkeley. R.E. Faro can be reached at farospace@sbcglobal.net. Visit www.infarosgarden.com.

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Illustration by Russ Ando