Stories in Oak: How We Began
In September 1998, Greg and I found a house for sale on four acres. The roof was caving in, the basement had a half-foot of standing water, there were heaping piles of rusted junk all over the property, and the inside of the house was a mess. The sellers— the surviving relatives of the man who used to live in the house— lived in Florida and just wanted to make the sale. Thrilled at our affordable find, we bought the farm—collapsing roof and all.
We understood that we might not stay here forever but felt we should treat the land as though we would. If we ended up leaving, our work would be a gift to the land and its next dwellers, and in the meantime, we’d be creating a beautiful place for ourselves to enjoy.
Greg and I began clearing the piles of junk from the land and hauling in horse manure. We recycled the junk and composted the manure. Piles replaced piles. Ten monstrous mounds of manure rose up steaming like holy nitrogen shrines. We looked at our shit and said that it was good. Satisfied, we put down our shovels and picked up our spades. Side by side in the sunshine, we took off our shirts, split the sod, double-dug the dirt, and raised the beds. We dreamed of a place we wanted to have one day that we would call Mandala Gardens.
I held patterns of mandala gardens in my third eye and sketched them into the earth. Our first garden we dug was the wheel of the zodiac, twelve triangular raised beds inside a circle, with the pathways as the encompassing circle and the spokes of the wheel. Our second garden was a star inside a circle, with the pathways as the body of the star, and the raised beds as the triangles nestling into the joints of the star. Our third and largest garden we dug was the spiral—a spiralling pathway wrapped by a spiraling raised bed. During that time we planted pine trees around the borders of the four acres, and random varieties of fruiting, deciduous, and coniferous trees throughout. I was always on the lookout for volunteer oak trees to nurture, and Greg had eyes for the cypress. The next garden we were planning would be our largest one yet, a classical labyrinth, also recognized as the Hopi Mother Earth Symbol, an ancient symbol that has been found in cultures around the world. I envisioned our labyrinth as huge and bursting with life, color, scent and texture. I wanted to build it as a gift for people to walk through and find healing and homeplace. One of Greg’s and my favorite rituals was to dream up our future together while walking the spiral with our morning coffee. So far, everything we’ve dreamed together has come true.
Five years after moving into our house, I was accepted into the PhD program, and even though the University was only thirty minutes away from our house, we figured that since we’d probably move away after I finished my degree, we might as well just move now and be closer to campus. We put our house on the market, but when we couldn’t find a house we liked, we decided to take our house off the market and stay at our home until I finished my PhD. To our mutual surprise, we felt much relief.
During the years of my doctoral program, I found myself thinking about where we might live after I finished my PhD. But I was often overcome with the desire to never leave Southern Illinois.
Flash forward to September 2009. I completed my Ph.D. and was applying for jobs. I thought we would be moving to New York City.
Then springtime came to Southern Illinois. The economy was in the thick of its notorious downturn, and the redbuds were in bloom. The peonies seduced me with their frilly silk. The lilacs intoxicated me with their fragrant cliché. The tulips screamed neon announcements that they survived the deer. We laid sandstone paths. We planted trees. Just when I thought I had successfully detached from our land, here I was with its very soil under my nails—burying roots, leveling rock, and loving every weed and broken hinge and flooded low-spot.
I walked the country roads where beauty and poverty collided. I loved the pasture with the old horse whose cockleburs I removed from its black mane. I loved the big Victorian with the sign out front that said “Haircuts.” I loved the trailer with the life-size statue of Kwan Yin standing beneath the tree guarded by the two lions.
I didn’t want to leave Southern Illinois! I realized it with a surge of passion. But how could I stay? How could I make a living here? My mind returned to the old vision Greg and I been refining for years, our idea of creating healing gardens and creative retreat space where people could come from all over, walk through the gardens, share inspiration, and feel nurtured and rejuvenated. I realized I was re-remembering and re-visioning what we had already named long ago: Mandala Gardens. My heart quickened as I realized I could stay in Southern Illinois. I could make this work!
I felt euphoric with the awareness of my desire to stay in Southern Illinois. Within minutes upon returning home, my phone rang.
“Dr. Tigerlily? I’m calling from New York City. We received your application for the full-time tenure-track position. Are you still interested?”
Not only had I mostly forgotten about this position, but I was so fully immersed in my retreat idea that New York City felt far away, an abstraction, a detachment from my own reality. I impulsively prepared to answer “No”. But I caught myself in time to realize this was about a real job in New York City and that I had to say yes.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay, that’s all we wanted to know. Thank you.” And she hung up!
I stood there shocked. My heart beat from the adrenaline surge and reality shift. My mind worked to make sense of things. Though I must have made the short list to receive this call, I was aware that I wasn’t as excited as I should be.
My thoughts returned to Mandala Gardens, and later that day, I told Greg about my new ideas and how I was convinced we could make it work. But he just shook his head and said the same things we’d discussed in the past. “We just don’t have the space for parking, and we really need another building.”
Undaunted, I went for another long walk. The house next door to ours had been abandoned for a year and was showing its neglect. The couple had divorced and gone their separate ways. I noticed the piece of paper that was taped to the front of the house. The paper had been there for awhile, but I hadn’t really been curious about it until now. I walked up to the house. It was a Notice of Foreclosure. The couple must have chosen to stop making payments and simply walk away from this symbol they no longer shared.
The Notice said the foreclosure became effective April 21. My heart skipped a beat. That was tomorrow!
The timing was serendipitous. This wonderful house on three acres that attached to our gardens, this long driveway with ample parking, this huge vacant building—this is what we needed to make our vision come true!
I returned home, excited, and opened my laptop. Sitting in my inbox was an email that had just been sent from the college in New York City notifying me I had been selected for a phone interview for tomorrow or the day after that.
This house going into foreclosure at the same time as the New York City job interview was the mother of all convergences. The universe was presenting me with two very real, yet two very different life path choices. New York City or Mandala Gardens. I marveled at the truly coffee and granola moment this was for me: city or soil. It was the ultimate life-path-decision. Whichever I chose would be significantly life-defining, not just for me but for my family, too.
The phone interview went well. I hung up the phone excited about the possibilities this full-time tenure track position could offer. The position was attractive. The department sounded friendly and supportive. The heavy teaching load was balanced by five paid months off per year for research and creativity. I imagined hard work satisfied by the rewards of abundant restaurant choices, theatre, and months of paid writing. Plus, we’d be right there by the coast and an easy drive to the mountains. It seemed to offer a healthy balance of everything. To choose this job was to choose academia coupled with the world’s greatest city!
But, my excitement turned to a realization that to choose this job was to reject Mandala Gardens, just when it was seeming like a real possibility.
I told myself, surely it would be lofty and unwise to turn down a real job with real benefits in the field of my training, in a city I love, to follow a vision I was only imagining. Right?
But I was getting ahead of myself. They might not even offer me the job.
I decided to put all of it out of my mind.
But in those next days, I found myself unable to stop thinking about all the new mandala gardens I would build on our new land. I was imagining a giant labyrinth, children’s gardens, heirloom gardens, a pumpkin patch, honeybees. I was picturing pathways lined with white stone that glowed in the moonlight and a hidden bench with a wooden box that contained binoculars and a bird and butterfly identification book. I was thinking about creative retreats, conferences, workshops. I was imagining haven, enlightenment, sustainability.
Is it crazy to buy an abandoned house and build a dream?
My heart thought it made perfect sense.
I confided to Greg that I didn’t want to move to New York City, I didn’t want the job. I wanted to stay right here and buy this property and build Mandala Gardens. I felt that to choose Mandala Gardens was to choose the life I wanted. Knowing that I would never, ever have to move away from my oak trees and my spiral garden and my goats gave me a tremendous sense of peace.
That night, we started crunching numbers. We didn’t have the cash for a down payment. I only had one more guaranteed paycheck, and it was a half-paycheck. In two more weeks my teaching contract would end and I wouldn’t know if I would be re-hired. The mere risk of not having a job was bad enough, but to couple that with the purchase of yet another house in serious disrepair seemed insane. Were we up for this kind of risk all over again? What if we found ourselves with a money pit and growing debt? What if I failed?
The next morning I walked to the center of my spiral garden and laid on my back like a star until I was rooted in centeredness. Then, I walked the land. At the very back corner was the giant old oak tree that I loved very much. I had never been able to stand directly beneath this tree, for the fence had always blocked my way, plus it was on the neighbor’s property. But now the fence had recently been torn down by the electric company, the property was for sale, and we were contemplating buying it. I walked across the property line, navigating brambles and honeysuckle, and stood beneath the old oak tree for the first time ever. I looked up into its maze of branches and then out over the three acres, seeing the long length of the land from a perspective I’d never seen.
I placed my hand on the tree, and I heard a clear voice say, “This is where you live.”
The clarity and truth of those words crashed over me, fast and unexpected. This was where I lived, where my dreams had taken root. How could I have ever doubted?
I walked the outside borders of the two properties to energetically connect them. When I reached the portion of our land that I long ago had designated as spirit sanctuary, a rush of gratitude powerfully swept through me, as though the spirit was thanking me. Aloud I responded, “Thank you for all you’ve given me.”
And I exhaled a long exhale and proclaimed, “The two properties are now bound. May they forever be protected.”
As soon as I spoke the words, a bird squawked overhead. I looked up and a Great Blue Heron, symbol of self-determination and self-reliance, flew right over me and across both parcels of land, physically sealing them as one, while reminding me of my strength and ability to manifest this dream.
The Great Blue Heron and the Oak Tree affirmed for me that I had nothing to be afraid of.
I breathlessly called Greg to tell him we needed to buy the house.
Adrenaline surging, we rushed to the realtor's office, “Honey, are we crazy or what?”
“We are completely crazy!” And we laughed and kissed.
Months later when I sat down to write this story, I wrote the words, “Great Blue Heron and Oak Tree Speak to Me”—and just as I finished typing those nine words, something caught my eye. I looked and saw a great blue heron fly right outside my window, soar majestically, and then land near the top of the very oak tree of which I speak, and of which spoke to me.
Affirmation is everywhere, always.
And this Tigerlily is planted.