When I think of my heart’s journey over the past few years, I remember the time I watched my friend Laurine tenderise a chicken breast. She hit it with her kitchen mallet until it succumbed – limp.
I would rather you thought me valiant, in love.
Independent, but entirely adorable.
Definitely too devoted to make mistakes around men or marriage.
Totally wifeable, but too holy to worry about it.
That is not the case.
The romantic paths I’ve taken over the past four years have twisted and turned and led me to both extraordinary wonder, and to corners of my person that I never want to revisit. However I might carry their consequences, I have faith that they are all the right path, and all a stretch of my pilgrimage – God has grace enough to ensure that.
But a few weeks ago, I hit an impasse.
I was knocked down, hard. Another relationship had ended, and the familiar stars in my eyes of ‘sacrificial fight’ (read: denial) had started to fade.
It was actually over, and something was seriously wrong – either with my judgment, with my behaviour, or with my ability to hear God’s voice.
Maybe something was even wrong with God?
I was furious, and I was ashamed.
I did not know how to be the lover I wanted to be. I did not how to find the lover that I kept looking for.
I wouldn’t voice it, but I was deeply worried that I was being punished. Again, I had pursued relationship, instead of singleness.
Jesus should be enough for you, you idolater.
Friends tried reach out, but I was constantly afraid of someone turning around to offer well-meaning but staggeringly painful advice about my ‘need to be single’, as if I should accept a due sentence for having a season of misplaced joy.
I felt stung by the proposition of a ‘required’ singleness, and the insinuation that I did not deserve to be married because I did not know how to be alone.
I had experienced true joy and companionship in my relationships, but I also felt like ‘alone’ was a lot of what I knew relationships to be.
I did everything alone. I travelled overseas alone, went to church alone, worked alone, watched films alone, built furniture alone, did road trips alone. I lay alone in bed at night. My aloneness permeated everything, and not just because of the long-distance, overtime hours on set, or introversion. It was more problematic.
In the past four years of different relationships, I had more often than not felt incredibly lonely.
Did I really need to experience a deeper isolation than that of unrequited interest, vulnerability or commitment?
I hadn’t asked for the relationships, and thought I had followed God’s leading in them.
I wasn’t actively avoiding being single, was I?
But single I now was.
I came home from a month in Queensland, shattered by the detoxification process yet again. A group of us were supposed to go away for my birthday, and there was nothing I wanted to do less.
The thought of gallivanting through mountains, pretending to be happy about it on Instagram, made me want to be sick. But, it was booked, and at least the fresh air and exercise might make me more of a pleasant person, momentarily.
I had only been home twenty-four hours, when we were due to set off. I had arranged to take my friend Charlotte, and I knew she would be brilliant, light-filled company on the three hour drive, but I did not know if I could communicate what had happened over the past few months, or how I felt about it.
I drove to her house, bags packed, attempting to fight off the black cloud. I just wanted to get out of Melbourne, and start the process of distraction.
As I wound my way through her suburb, I passed a sign that jumped out: ‘Verdant Street’.
Immediately a scripture came to my mind.
‘Our bed is verdant’.
I scowled as I remembered where I knew it from.
Bloody ‘Song of Songs’.
Song of Songs is a Hebrew poem in the bible, about love and sex. My favourite book (usually).
A couple are getting married, and they take turns saying these extraordinary and potent things about one another, while their friends cheer them on as an enthusiastic chorus. God uses it to explain that love – between couples, or between Him and us – is like a blossoming garden in Spring.
I shrugged off the scripture. I didn’t even know what verdant meant. Probably ‘full of lot’s and lot’s of great marital lovemaking’.
I picked up Charlotte and we went to grab petrol. I could feel her gently trying to get me to open up, but I wasn’t ready. I figured we’d have plenty of time on the open road. I just had to get us out of the city.
But after I paid, the car would not start.
I tried again. Nothing.
Again, and again.
It was dead.
Charlotte watched me dissolve into my own anxiety. It was Anna versus God.
I knew He knew what He was doing, and I wanted none of it. Whatever lesson I was supposed to learn from it all was of absolutely no interest.
RACV started it again, but the guy explained I had to drive it home and leave it there – no-one would fix it on a long weekend. We had no choice but to head back to mine, and hope another friend could drive us out to the Grampians later that night.
We decided to go and have breakfast, so I parked my cursed car, and for the first time in over a month, checked my letterbox.
A folded square of green paper sat in there, carefully wrapped in plastic. I opened it, without expectation.
On the top of the piece of paper was the date, and a tiny sticker that read:
‘Be still and know that I am God’.
‘It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place any one could imagine. The high walls which shut it in were covered with the leafless stems of climbing roses which were so thick that they were matted together. Mary Lennox knew they were roses because she had seen a great many roses in India. All the ground was covered with grass of a wintry brown and out of it grew clumps of bushes which were surely rosebushes if they were alive. There were numbers of standard roses which had so spread their branches that they were like little trees. There were other trees in the garden, and one of the things which made the place look strangest and loveliest was that climbing roses had run all over them and swung down long tendrils which made light swaying curtains, and here and there they had caught at each other or at a far-reaching branch and had crept from one tree to another and made lovely bridges of themselves. There were neither leaves nor roses on them now and Mary did not know whether they were dead or alive, but their thin gray or brown branches and sprays looked like a sort of hazy mantle spreading over everything, walls, and trees, and even brown grass, where they had fallen from their fastenings and run along the ground. It was this hazy tangle from tree to tree which made it all look so mysterious. Mary had thought it must be different from other gardens which had not been left all by themselves so long; and indeed it was different from any other place she had ever seen in her life.
“How still it is!” she whispered. “How still!”
Then she waited a moment and listened at the stillness.’
That was it.
It was not signed.
I knew instinctively that the excerpt was from ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett, but I’d never read the book before.
The story I was familiar with, and had held close to my heart.
The day I decided to properly trust that God existed for the first time, was four years ago, in May. I had had some profound experiences in the days and weeks leading up to this, but was still sitting on the fence. Christianity was not what I necessarily wanted to be true.
I was in a church service, and a few people were standing up the front to demonstrate the power of the spiritual gift of prophecy.
One of the young women was blindfolded, and the pastor whispered to me to go up and stand in front of her. I had no idea what the whole thing was about. The young woman placed her hand on me, and after describing my creativity and character with alarming accuracy, she began to describe a vision she saw.
‘You’re walking along a garden path, and you come to a hidden door in a wall. You don’t know whether to go through the door or not. God says, go through it. Take the risk. On the other side is a secret garden, full of more beauty than you could ever imagine.’
She paused, then continued:
‘After today, nothing will ever be the same again.’
And it wasn’t. That day, on the tram home, I heard God speak to me for the first time.
Four years later, I stood by my letterbox, shaken.
No-one could really have known about my connection to this.
God had clearly told someone to write out this specific passage to encourage me, but I felt grieved.
Stillness? Did you seriously need to break my car down to give me that message Jesus?
I briefly waved it in front of Charlotte as we walked, then tucked it away.
She sat across from me in the café, patiently watching my gaze jump all over the room. I could not rest in anything.
Anna, I keep getting this verse for you. It’s from Song of Songs.
She breathed. I did not.
‘How handsome you are, my beloved! Oh, how charming! And our bed is verdant.’
I stared at her, incredulous.
Do you know what ‘verdant’ means?
I shook my head.
It means green.
Yeah, like trees, and leaves in a garden.
To be honest, it didn’t truly hit until later, and even then, it came in waves – like a heart, pumping blood, or a story being told in different sittings.
We drove into the mountains that night. It was beautiful, and difficult. My friends prayed for me, as I laughed uncontrollably and sobbed without restraint. We drank wine, sang, and danced. We stood in the fresh air of the mountain range and breathed, until our lungs had stretched out their pollution.
On our way home, we saw a truck hit a kangaroo. We held our hands over its fur and felt the heat of its pain, praying over its life until it died. We all knew, when it left. The body went cold immediately. There was something solemn about the stillness – I knew spirit existed, from where it was not.
The secret gardens of Frances Hodgson Burnett and King Solomon tugged at me. I played the stories God had given me over in my mind.
In Song of Songs, the ‘Lover’ (the man) describes the ‘Beloved’ (the woman) this way:
‘Your clothes smell like the wild outdoors,
the ozone scent of high mountains.
Dear lover and friend, you’re a secret garden,
a private and pure fountain.
Body and soul, you are paradise,
a whole orchard of succulent fruits.’ (4:12 MSG)
He speaks to her of the beauty and life they have in their love:
‘Get up, my dear friend,
fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Look around you: Winter is over;
the winter rains are over, gone!
Spring flowers are in blossom all over.
The whole world’s a choir—and singing!’ (2:11 MSG)
In ‘The Secret Garden’, Mary Lennox tends to her grey, overgrown garden, hoping it will one day bloom. One day, she runs into the room of her fearful cousin, Colin:
“You’ve been out! You’ve been out! There’s that nice smell of leaves!” he cried.
She had been running and her hair was loose and blown and she was bright with the air and pink-cheeked, though he could not see it.
“It’s so beautiful!” she said, a little breathless with her speed. “You never saw anything so beautiful! It has come! I thought it had come that other morning, but it was only coming. It is here now! It has come, the Spring! Dickon says so!”
“Has it?” cried Colin, and though he really knew nothing about it he felt his heart beat. He actually sat up in bed.
“Open the window!” he added, laughing half with joyful excitement and half at his own fancy. “Perhaps we may hear golden trumpets!”
And though he laughed, Mary was at the window in a moment and in a moment more it was opened wide and freshness and softness and scents and birds’ songs were pouring through.
“That’s fresh air,” she said. “Lie on your back and draw in long breaths of it. That’s what Dickon does when he’s lying on the moor. He says he feels it in his veins and it makes him strong and he feels as if he could live forever and ever. Breathe it and breathe it.”
Over the past few months, I have discovered both these gardens to be one and the same. I have discovered them to be mine – a safe place to meet with my own growth. A space of identity, and peace.
I have let myself sit in the winter garden: the colours not dead, but dormant – an aching stillness that can be pruned and prepared, but a seasonal shift that cannot be hurried. As I have meditated on it, I have found the patience to sit in my grief, to feel it for all it is.
I have let myself sit in the verdant garden of a gentle promise: You will love. You will be loved. I have found hope for marriage. For devotion, inspiration and joy.
And I have let myself sit in my garden, alone, with God. I have let Him show me a new kind of Spring.
‘Single’ is strangely different, this time.
I don’t feel punished, the way I expected I might deserve. I feel rewarded. I am revelling in burdens lifted, in the very blessing that is my solitude. The gift of myself, to myself. The restoration of a garden, behind closed doors.
Contrary to my fears, my friends and family have come around me like white blood cells to a bleeding limb of a body. ‘Single’ is actually the opposite to any definition of ‘alone’ I have known. I have never felt so supported, or accompanied. I am unashamedly accepted by my community. My longings have been replaced with an incomprehensible peace.
I am on the beginning steps of this journey, but I have begun to wonder about the wider meaning of ‘Love’.
Love is not a wedding. Nor is it a marriage. It is not a home. It is not a legal document. It is not a child. It is not a glance or a kiss or a long conversation.
It is not a church.
It is not the old book, though the old book speaks of it.
Love is God, and the space God created for love to grow is a garden.
It always was, and always will be.
We plant, we cultivate, we wait.
We curl around each other, until we are one body – one community – the way trees find themselves to be forests.
Our love grows up to light, and deep to water.
We wrap our limbs around each other, understanding that once we do, we won’t grow in the same direction, ever again.
And we flower – in the garden of Love we bloom – suddenly free to burst out of the seeds that obscure us, to gift to an unconditionally receptive ecosystem whatever it is we were created to grow off of our branches.
We grow for the garden, we grow for the gardener, and we grow for the continuation of life itself.
I’m trying not to wait, now. Not for a new season, not for a partner, not for anything.
I am already in the garden, so gracefully alive in its stillness. I can breathe here.
As I tend the bit of earth that is my own heart, I find more love than I ever thought could thrive, in this wild world.