This summer, I made a Crone’s garden. Not with plants, but with fabric. In July, I found myself on a silent retreat entitled Gardens of the Spirit, at Woodbrooke, the Quaker College in Birmingham. I’d booked it months before, attracted mainly by the silence and the working method - I forgot all about the theme until the detailed information about the programme arrived a couple of weeks before. I was not pleased – I’d spent quite a lot of time in the previous six weeks trying to create some order in my own overgrown garden and the last thing I wanted was more gardening. Or so I thought.
The course started with a plethora of postcards –we had to wander round and choose two each, which would travel through the retreat with us. Or, more accurately, let two choose us. And this one chose me. Quite obviously Crone – wise, insightful, benign, but also shrewd, a stander-of-no-nonsense. From then on, the retreat went Her way. Quite clearly, she had to have a garden. I bent the gentle suggestions of the facilitators to suit.
Having found my Crone I started to feel for what kind of garden she would have. Woodbrooke has a good art room so there was a lot to play with. I found a straightforward piece of embroidery fabric in the bottom of a box of bits and then collected lots of other things. I was intrigued that I didn't feel the garden ought to have walls. Fuzzy boundaries through fraying the fabric felt right. Being frayed at the edges feels fairly normal, to me….
I settled for an entrance at one corner, no flashy entrance gates, just a black and grey path, winding across a piece of open ground towards a threshold. I found some damaged fabric that reminded me of a mask, and enlarged the holes a bit. Putting down a mask seemed to be the first thing any visitor should do before entering the garden proper. I thought, you can’t kid the Crone, what use would a mask be? And having put down your mask, you can follow the path across the threshold, and enter the garden proper.
Unfortunately, I have found, it isn’t as simple as that. Putting down masks is more complicated than not pretending. Masks are also about identities. We are all a bit different with different people and in different contexts – our children don’t see the same mix of qualities that our oldest friends recognise from our youth, for example. My Quaker Meeting might have difficulty recognising me as a belly dancer, and vice versa. And this is not because we lie, or deliberately conceal aspects of ourselves – it is just because different situations call out different qualities. And all those different identities spawn different things we need to do, or remember to do soon – ringing people, fixing dates, arranging for things or people to be where they are needed, creative projects we want to give time to…. Our masks trail tangles of threads. Not only do we need to put down our multiple masks, we need to disentangle ourselves from the threads attached to them. Otherwise we can’t move anywhere much, and certainly not across an important threshold. This one crosses water. It is a serious boundary. If I wait till I’ve finished everything I can think of, I will never get there. So I need to be prepared to leave all these ideas behind. How difficult is this? It depends.
Once across the threshold, there is a fire, to burn whatever else I realise I should have left behind - we all keep on having to let go of things, it is probably a never-ending process. On the other side of the path there is a meadow – I was interested to find that the Crone's garden is a fertile place, with a meadow and trees. If we want new growth, we have to make space, and ash from the bonfire would make good fertiliser. There is plenty of growth around here, but none of it is noticeably controlled or managed. Nature does its thing. There are even reeds round the scrying pool, protecting the process of looking into the depths. The Crone’s garden is a place where we can see more clearly, without our blinkers – perhaps seeing different aspects of reality. Might we see visions? It depends.
Past the pool there is a shelter - it's difficult to see this ever so well in a photograph, but I felt - She's an old lady, she would want a shelter and a patio to sit out on. At this point something in the process changed. Up till then I had been stitching everything – I like hand sewing, and I wanted to work slowly, meditatively, not get quick results with glue. And it felt good. But for the shelter I had found this fabric with an angular print on it, and somehow felt it would be right to use glue. This structure was not ‘natural’, but made instead by human hands. We need to show willing to welcome the Crone.
Next to the shelter there was a modest-sized blank space. I stared at it for quite a while, on and off, wondering if it was best just to leave it alone? Eventually I found inspiration from the course book box. Browsing through the wide range available, I found Andy Goldsworthy’s Time. He is a landscape artist, working with natural forms, and there was one photograph where he showed some graves carved into the rock. I found that, in the Crone’s garden, there needed to be a grave. I wasn’t sure whose it was, but it definitely belonged.
I am a crone, so it is my garden too. I’m 67 now, plenty of people in my life have died, and for quite a while I’ve been aware that there always seems to be someone I care about who is edging up on their own death. And increasingly, there’s more than one. Get used to it, I tell myself, it goes with the territory. Do your best to help, grieve, and learn to be progressively more useful. But the deaths of our friends and relatives remind us that we too will die. Those of us who know Julie Felix’s chilling rendition of La Que Saba will remember that ‘the woman who lives in the desert, the woman who lives in the night’ takes us through a series of scary initiatory experiences, including the recognition of the identity of the tombstone in the cave: ‘It’s your grave’. So maybe I’ve made my own grave? Is that what we find with the Crone? It depends.
Quite a bit after the retreat, I recovered the memory that among the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity there was a tradition that hermits dug their own graves. A considerate thing to do, since one would expect them to die alone, but also an act in keeping with a willingness to contemplate emptiness, and one's own death. Effectively, I've made a hermit’s cell, so it seems right to connect with hermit traditions in other ways. At 67 I am not at all surprised when the Tarot card for the Hermit turns up in spreads – I need more time alone, more time to explore my inner world, more time with traditions that support retreat within. The desert hermit tradition has wisdom I can use: ‘Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’
The garden I made for the Crone is a restful place, a place to heal. It can’t, therefore, be just for me. The desert hermits were hospitable - people came to visit them a lot, to ask for advice. So the path that takes me to the Crone may welcome others in as well. But it is no good pretending it is a road that is easy to tread. Too much needs to be relinquished, temporarily or even permanently. Visitors are likely to be limited – by no means everyone will want to visit the Crone.