“‘I’m glad it’s wick!’ she cried out in her whisper. ‘I want them all to be wick. Let us go round the garden and count how many wick ones there are.'” These lines, with the Yorkshire slang for “alive” or “lively”, from Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic tale The Secret Garden came to me this morning as I ran past a particularly beautiful smattering of black-eyed susans, echinaceas, and daisies. Sprays of garnet day lilies lifted heads to the sun like communion chalices waiting for a draught of wine. Spilling across lawns and wick gardens, the early morning sun itself was a draft of wheat beer poured at a careful, steep angle.
My thumb may have a green tinge to it, but I am not a true gardener. Plants do not thrive under my nurturing care as they do for the character Dickon in The Secret Garden. I can, however, cherish the flourishing beauty of a well-tended garden. I can understand the rootedness obtained through weaving fingers in dirt. I can appreciate the life-metaphors revealed in a weed’s ability to choke and consume and in composting’s busy work of turning trash to treasure. Most gardens seem to be on display for the very purpose of eliciting a smile from neighbors driving (or running, in my case) on the way to someplace else. A garden is a flowering billboard advertising happy thoughts and gladsome tidings en route. Rarely do I find a garden that invites me to make the flower beds my final destination. Except for one garden: a TOP SECRET garden.
Like Mary Lennox, a main character in The Secret Garden, I am hesitant to share my secret garden with just anyone. Only really trustworthy people should be let in on the secret, people who can share in the reverence and sanctity of a Magically wick place. So it is with some reservation that I complete this Musing. If you’re not the type of person who can appreciate a picnic on the lawn for the sake of a picnic on a lawn, please stop reading here and go do something more important. If you’re not the type of person who can stop in the midst of a busy farmer’s market to rescue one bruised pink flower with golden center from a crack in the pavement (thank you, Little Friend for small, treasured moments like this), please stop reading here and go do something more important. If you’re still reading, by all means, welcome to my secret garden.
I first discovered the Monastery Gardens of Old St. Patrick’s Church years ago when I worked at a marketing firm in the Strip District. I’d walk from 25th street to 17th street, book in one hand and brown bag lunch in the other. From the cluttered, dusty, noisome sidewalks of Penn Avenue, I’d slip into the secluded walls of a haven. On the corner of Liberty Ave and 17th street, high brick walls and thick thatches of ivy conceal my favorite patch of Pittsburgh. A verdant lawn divided by walkways, rose bushes, trim hedges, moss-tipped statues, blank-faced impatients, and hovering maples flourishes within the secluding walls. A few benches offer respite for weary feet and busy minds. The lush lawn seems to draw me downward, spreading blanket and body against its springy hide. I have spent many a lunch hour in this secret glen, listening to the wind dart about in the maple leaves and the grinding rumble and hiss of busses plowing paths along Liberty Ave. I’ve found that in my secret garden, stress sloughs off of me, shedding like a second skin from the hair follicles on my head all the way down through the bottoms of my toes.
The garden is no longer a convenient stroll for a peaceful lunch, but still I am drawn back to its enclosed Eden. Over the years, I’ve taken special people there, people who I feel will appreciate the Magic of the place: my husband, my mom, close friends, and now, most recently, Little Friend, whose bare feet bustled around the grass and who found an injured ladybug crawling across my shirt. (Confession: Little Friend may have been the agent of injury in this poor insect’s life, but what does a toddler know about the delicate gossamer of ladybug wings?) I call St. Patrick’s garden my secret garden, but it’s not a particularly well-kept secret. In my visits, I have seen priests swinging open the church doors for mass, business men in bland khakis and generic polo shirts, homeless women dragging tattered bags, summer camp kids scattering juice boxes and Lunchables containers across the walks, and fanny-packed tourists following like docile sheep a tour guide into the cool interior of St. Patrick’s Church. I love the varied company.
With a framed view of Downtown Pittsburgh skyscrapers on one end and a billboard for Wolfe Publishing Co. on the other, my secret garden reminds me that while I may be carefree and barefoot within its walls, life, with all its grit, grime and reality, waits just outside. From my bench, I can smell the sweet-burnt scent of Prestogeorge’s roasting peanuts and catch just a whiff of the mung-bean pancakes sizzling on a popular street-vendor’s cart. I know that Wholey’s sidewalk, while blocked from view by ivy-clogged walls, is still presided over by a wooden bear statue and customers queuing up for a slab of fresh fish. All around me, people are shopping, stopping, hustling, bustling, and rustling. But inside the garden, I am slowed to the pace of a flower’s face following the sun through its orbit. Peace such as this costs hundreds of dollars on a therapist’s couch.
Perhaps the otherworldly peace that pervades St. Patrick’s originates from the garden grotto, which is modeled after Lourdes, or perhaps the peace floats down the 28 interior steps, the number of steps Jesus climbed to receive judgement from Pontius Pilate. In any case, a visit to Old St. Patrick’s gardens leaves me singing the Doxology, along with Colin Craven in Burnett’s Secret Garden:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
As Colin observes upon listening to the hymn in his secret garden, “‘I like it. Perhaps it means just what I mean when I want to shout out that I am thankful to the Magic.’ He stopped and thought in a puzzled way. ‘Perhaps they are both the same thing.'” Because of the Magic that pervades each grass blade, flower stem, and sidewalk crack of St. Patrick’s Church Garden, I too thank Father, Son, and Holy Ghost for secret gardens.
Old St. Patrick’s Church Monastery Gardens are located on the corner of Liberty Avenue and 17th Street. To make my secret garden your own, plan a morning’s picnic on the grass by shopping the Strip’s eclectic and always delicious restaurants. Or stop by La Gourmandine in Lawrenceville for authentic French bakery fare to stuff your picnic basket. Free parking can be frustrating to find in the Strip, a problem easily solved by shopping at Right by Nature, an organic and natural grocery store that offers two hours free parking (with purchase) in their garage. For a guided tour of the Strip District that includes a stop at Old St. Patrick’s, sign up with Burgh Bits and Bites.