As a child, I was known as the “Barefoot Contessa.” You could always find me outside in the grass, climbing a tree or playing hopscotch, but always barefoot. I hated shoes! I loved the feel of the cool, wet grass, the warm cement, the Earth below my feet. The Earth and I shared a connection that persists even today.
One of my fondest memories of childhood was working side by side with my father in the family garden: planting, weeding, and harvesting the vegetables. My most important job was “bug detective”—hunting down the green cutworms that could devour a large portion of a tomato plant overnight.
A Sangha Garden
For many years, I lived without a garden. My property is mostly shade and not conducive to growing vegetables. So you can imagine my delight when the last remaining farm in my county was bought by the county government as protected space and given to Cornell Cooperative Extension as a demonstration and community garden. I immediately put in an application and was awarded a 5’ x 20’ plot for organic gardening.
I announced to my Sangha during Dharma sharing that I planned to start a garden and asked if anyone would like to join me in this venture. Two of my Sangha sisters eagerly became co-gardeners with me in our Sangha garden.
We planted the garden, looked at our work, and smiled—knowing soon we would have beautiful organic homegrown produce, planted with mindfulness and love. We placed a laminated sign at the front of the garden, sharing that this was a mindfulness garden and offering an explanation of mindfulness, including one of Thay’s calligraphies: “I am in love with Mother Earth.” We also stapled gathas about gardening to the wood edgings around the exterior of the garden.
Calamity hit when both of my Sangha sisters were struck with serious illnesses and could not work in the garden. The task of maintaining the garden was left to me. At the same time, I became unemployed and was devastated.
For almost the entire month of July, I became a hermit, rarely leaving the confines of my home. I meditated and did chores but hardly left my property except to run needed errands and tend the garden. Every morning I left the house with two old spackle pails, one filled with the necessary tools and supplies and the other empty. I walked to the garden in meditation.
As I worked in the garden, I repeated the gathas and breathed in mindfulness. My hands worked the soil, trimmed the plants, tied up drooping limbs to support the heavy fruit, and watered the garden. I took off my shoes to walk in the dirt and grass, which made me smile and remember my childhood. I had become that “Barefoot Contessa” again and I was happy.
The garden flourished under my caring hands and produced an abundance of beautiful vegetables that I shared with my friends, who were too ill to work there. I visited them and shared stories about the garden and the vegetables that were starting to come into season. When the garden started to produce more vegetables than we could eat, I canned tomatoes, made pickles, froze pesto, and shared them with others.
Through the community garden, I also made new friends. We shared ideas on how to control pests and cure plant diseases. We showed our gardens to one another and celebrated the food we had grown. Curious about the sayings posted around my garden, the other gardeners asked questions and I shared my practice and explained how my gardening in itself was a practice in mindfulness. This was something they all related to, and they realized how working in their gardens was a form of meditation.
I began to understand that, as I cared for the “Sangha Garden,” I was healing myself and my friends. I had planted seeds within me, and now, new fruit had begun to sprout. I realized that while I was in the garden, I was truly happy—happier that I had been that entire year. I was no longer a hermit; the garden I was tending had also tended to me. I was healed.
I give thanks to Mother Earth and dedicate this story to her.
Wife, mother, and grandmother, Candace Henshaw-Osias, Awareness Path of the Heart, is an educator involved in the mindfulness in education movement. She is a member of the Green Island Sangha in Mahasset, New York, and a pre-aspirant to the Order of Interbeing. She wrote this story during an arts retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery.