God’s creation and your mental wellbeing
I have traveled to many countries with many different landscapes, visiting tropical forests like those in Bangladesh to Europe’s glittering cities and the glorious desert of Saudi Arabia, where I performed my hajj.
My photo albums are filled with pictures of the Alps in Zermatt, Switzerland. I can remember praying in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, floating along in a small boat on a river, and walking through tea gardens and down dirt roads in Sylhet, Bangladesh.
But of all the places I’ve visited, my backyard is my favorite. There is nothing exceptional about my garden. It’s of average size, though bigger than some. We replaced the grass that couldn’t grow, because of the drought caused by climate change, with cement.
I live in Southern California amidst palm trees and gardens, all of them sustained through irrigation. There are wineries in the area that make you think you’re in Tuscany. But this is an arid climate, and without irrigation hardly anything would grow. The places that don’t get water are filled with wild burnt grass and alien-looking rocky hills. Sometimes during the summer months, the temperature can go up to 100 degrees. We feel so blessed when we have rain.
My husband made holes in the cement, and in them we planted many roses of all different colors, jasmine and a few fruit trees. In front of our house are more roses, irises, hibiscus and a bird of paradise. The trees behind the white fence separating us from our neighbor look like a forest in New England, where I grew up. In fact, this is why we bought our home. We raised our children here. A table in the garden is covered by a tarp gazebo with chairs. Next to it, standing tall, is an ornamental plum tree with white petals that fall like snow in the springtime. Several wind chimes, which I hung myself, dance in the wind.
The light changes, depending on the season. The leaves sway in the wind, and the golden, brilliant sun shines through them like a church’s stained-glass window. Even a Monet painting cannot capture this brilliance. Small birds and black crows chatter, and lizards dart and hide behind stones and climb the white fence. The sound coming from a small, blue fountain reminds me of the brook that flowed and churned in the yard of my childhood home in Massachusetts, where I used to catch frogs, lizards and tadpoles. I’m very grateful for my home and garden. I’m grateful that I have a bed to sleep in at night, and a home and food on the table.
Like everyone else, I still carry my worries and sadness about the world and my own personal problems. But they all dissolve and disappear when I work in my garden. I make jam out of the rose petals. My fruit trees are not doing so well, because they are by themselves. Even trees and plants need to be part of a community. Like humans, they don’t do so well when they are all alone. They need love.
Sometimes I have to dig up roses that aren’t doing so well. I dig them out with tenderness and gently put them in pots, spreading out their roots in good soil and cutting back the dead branches. This reminds me of how I cared for my children, family members and patients as a nurse’s aide or as an art teacher.
By taking care of my garden, I am mentally taking care of myself. I feel great reverence when taking care of my plants and the life flowing through them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we took care of others with compassion, like we tenderly take care of plants? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we treated each other with tenderness and compassion? My garden is my little mosque in which I worship Allah by taking care of His creation. And through His creation, He takes care of me. This is my sanctuary.
A few years before the pandemic, I hosted women’s parties for the Interfaith Council. Women in my garden. Women from different countries, religions and cultures came. Evangelicals talking with Muslims, Lutherans talking with Catholics, Jewish women talking with Palestinians, some even wearing their traditional attire. Members of the Bengali community have come to my home many times. I invite those who are very special to my heart to have chai tea with me out in my garden, along with the various tea breads I have made.
I relax in my garden to heal and calm my heart. Psychiatrists say gardening and being in touch with the earth is good for one’s mental health and very therapeutic. I am very responsible when it comes to providing that care. If only all of us felt that all human and living beings were sacred, we would have fewer wars and a more compassionate world. If only we had empathy for others and respected other cultures, instead of forcing our beliefs on them. If only we treated each other with the best adab (manners), like the guests in our gardens and homes, the world would be better off. The true garden of Allah is in our hearts.
Stephenie Bushra Khan, originally from Winchendon, Mass., is a professional artist, poet and writer mostly published in Islamic magazines and newspapers.