“The Secret Garden” Has Many Lessons to Teach Us

“The place was a wilderness of autumn gold and purple and violet blue and flaming scarlet on every side were sheaves of late lilies standing together–lilies which were white or white and ruby…Late roses climbed and hung and clustered and the sunshine deepening the hue of the yellowing trees made one feel that one stood in an empowered temple of gold.” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.

When I was I was sixteen I went to England for the first time, staying with different host families a few hours outside of London. I remember the gardens. Even a small yard was filled with rows of diverse colour, separated by narrow, meandering walking paths. It was such a contrast to the concrete and brick and asphalt dominating the front of the homes. I had never been in gardens that transported me beyond time and place before. The gardens offered magic and peace and escape–a refuge calming my fear of being away from home without my parents for the first time. This was when I learned that gardens were special.

As a child I loved the book “The Secret Garden” by Francis Hodgson Burnett. Mary Lennox is faced with big challenges: the death of her parents and everyone she knows and the move to a new country to live with an estranged, grieving uncle. The loss in her life is profound but through finding a secret garden, nurturing it to grow again, Mary gains a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. As she tends to the garden, she becomes stronger and happier, healing herself and those around her.

Over the past few months, I’ve been rehearsing “The Secret Garden: The Musical” by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon with Northumberland Players. Coming back to this story I realize that although the story is about a child, the lessons about healing are most important for adults.

” “Perhaps it has been buried for ten years,” she said in an almost whisper. “Perhaps it is the key to the garden!” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Norman and Simon have done an exquisite job of adapting this story for stage with a captivating score and multi-layered script. The music is stunning and complex. Listening to the Broadway soundtrack from beginning to end is a moving experience in itself, at times so powerful I want to weep. This is a musical that invites audiences to reflect on their lives, to face the ghosts of their pasts, and to do the work of healing. In many ways this is a musical for introverts.

This is not a musical with tap-dancing and kick-lines. It’s a love song, an extensive ballad about facing the storm, then finding life after loss. How can you heal when the love of your life has died? How can you have the strength to love your child when grief overcomes you? How can you support others who are gripped by despair?

After the death of her family, Mary goes to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven. The Craven family is overcome by grief for many years after Lily (Archie’s wife) died. Archibald, his brother, and his son, Colin, become like the wilted plants in a forgotten garden. They are desperate for healing but unable to do so alone.

Mary is brave and curious and independent. Her wild spirit leads her to meet Martha and Dickon and Ben. She listens to the robin. She opens the door to the unknown. She begins the work of restoring life to a neglected place. She teaches us about healing…

Healing is about being brave during the nightmares, listening to the whispers calling you to take action, taking a risk by stepping outside, giving yourself permission to feel the sun on your face, connecting with the people you meet, redefining a purpose for your life, focusing on something meaningful, giving to others what you most need for yourself, and honouring those you’ve lost by sharing your memories of them with others.

The garden is a powerful metaphor.

“Six months before Mistress Mary would not have seen the world was waking up, but now she missed nothing.” The Secret Garden, Francis Hodgson Burnett.

In the spring of 2006, “The Secret Garden” was the last high school musical I directed. We used a student version with simpler music than the Broadway one, but the basic story was the same. I selected this play to delight the student audiences, for the simplicity of the story and its message. Ten years have passed and I am immersed in this story again. I missed so much. The story is just waking up for me now.

I bet Francis Hodgson Burnett knew we needed a child to teach adults about resiliency. Today resiliency has become a buzz word in education and parenting. We want to know how to help our children cope better with difficulty and bounce back from hurt. In a time when anxiety and depression seem to be on the rise, I wonder if we should look to the lessons of the garden.

“When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his ‘creatures,’ there was no room left for disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.

At work a student learning need often points to a teacher learning need. If our children need to be more resilient then we need to learn more about it. How do we cope with difficulty? If we are more resilient, then our children will be too.

To a child, ten years is a lifetime. To us it passes in a blink. Ten years ago I was thirty. The areas of my life that I have tended to have slowly grown and developed: my home, my job, my relationships with those closest to me, my creative projects, and my sense of inner peace and contentment. The areas of my life that I have neglected continue to be difficult, stagnant, and haunting. Some days when I’m afraid I feel the walls rising up, the large door moving into place, the key turning in the lock.

The Secret Garden gently invites me to visit the areas of my life that need nurturing. It reminds me that even in the most impossible examples of hurt that healing is possible, that it’s worthwhile to open the door, to slowly tend to the weeds and rot of disappointment and loss to make a space to plant some new seeds.

This is a musical for poets and thinkers and dreamers too. In the show, I am in the chorus. We are called “Dreamers.” I love this. We are spirits reflecting Mary’s fears and hopes. This show has a rich subtext inviting audiences to dig beneath the plot–but you will need to do some work.

A few years ago I saw this version of the musical staged at a theatre outside of Toronto. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about this story. I left the theatre feeling entertained by the staging and music, but I missed a great opportunity. I didn’t make connections. I didn’t listen to the whispers.

Being a cast member in this show has given me the space to think deeply about its themes. Maybe I wasn’t ready for these lessons before. Maybe I hoped that someone like Mary Lennox would literally pop into my life and show me the way, do all the hard work for me. Maybe I needed to become part of the story to truly understand: we all need healing.

“If you look the right way, you can see

Then I think about the things I’ve learned about community healing and peace building. The garden metaphor extends beyond my life to our lives–to how we can begin the work of healing from losses in our towns and countries and even the world. There are so many big scary things going on in the world right now that I feel I don’t have the capacity to face: terrorism, gun violence, water shortages, corruption, war, poverty. So when I hear of a world tragedy I grieve quietly for a couple days, then I put up the walls and the door and lock it all up–but other people are out there tending to this difficult stuff, working each day to do what they can…

We will always have pain and loss in our lives. We would be naive to think difficulty is for other people. I want to be more like Mary. I want to find the keys, open the doors, tend to the gardens of my life, my town, my world. If we listen to the whispers in the subtext of The Secret Garden we will hear the characters asking us to examine our lives and to look for where we can tend some earth, starting small with just a bit.

Children will certainly be entertained by the story and characters in The Secret Garden, but adults can be changed by it. So I invite you to join us next month as the doors open on this beautiful show at The Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. Allow yourself to think deeply. Ask the story to remind you of the truths you saw as a child. Listen closely to the whispers.

Mary Lennox offers just one story. Each character on the stage has a story too. And perhaps you will see yourself not in Mary Lennox, but in Archibald Craven or Lily or Colin or Dickon or Martha or the Dreamers.

Despite the heavy themes, The Secret Garden is an uplifting, hopeful, optimistic musical. It takes us to the saddest parts in our hearts but shows us a path back out into the light and into the world.

” “Now,” he said at the end of the story, “it need not be a secret anymore.”” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Secret-Garden-Cast-Poster Dec 11 15


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