Focus, Like a Rooftop Garden

Rooftop Garden, courtesy US Human SocietyAbout twelve years ago, I was happy just to be in Paris. The language, the people, the bookstores and stalls, the museums, the music, the food, the endless day-and-night hustle and bustle... I just had to try and absorb it all, had to fill some empty well within me. On one particular occasion, I crashed for a week at the low-rent apartment of a friend of mine, about an hour's haul by subway and bus outside of the city proper. After unpacking that dreary May morning, I remember staring out the window at the bleak suburban landscape below, taking in the small blocky jail, a row of graffiti-scarred tenements, some soot-sweating factories with broken panes and scorched sides. The sun, barely able to peer through the clouds, did nothing to brighten the view. I was eager to get back into the city, but my friend insisted on showing me the roof. "Why?" I asked, thinking I'd only see more of the same grey and depressing scene from up above.

"You'll see," he said.

He led me up some dimly-lit, damp stairs that reeked vaguely of ammonia, mold and urine, and we came to a locked door. He fumbled around his vest for its key and carefully unlocked it, cautioning me that I wasn't to tell anybody what I saw, or at least where it was. As the door opened, a sudden flash of green light stabbing through the darkness temporarily blinded me, and as my eyes adjusted I could see lush vegetation, bright flowers, vibrant jade leaves, and the sparkle and shimmer of light upon water. It was a rooftop garden.

Now, I come from a long line of horticulturists. Our family business was a florist shop and nursery, and I spent the first two decades of my life in greenhouses. To that end, I've known a lot of dedicated gardeners over the years. But these people here had done something special. A young engineer living in the building with his floral-designer girlfriend came up with the idea, and it caught on. He put up some walls that deadened the sounds of the city, and designed a small irrigation system along with a tiny goldfish pond, fed by a stream and a miniature waterfall. She created rows of planters and set up a small greenhouse for seeding. Another tenant, an elderly lady, took responsibility for pruning the bushes, while her son --a woodworker-- created some beautiful little benches, tables, and chairs. Others handled weeding, watering, clean-up, and so on. One man even sculpted some small classical statues to adorn sections of the garden, and his wife made trellises. It was a community affair, one the whole building enjoyed working on together.

But it was to remain a secret. My friend told me that the landlord knew nothing about the garden, since it was against some sort of building code. However, the super, a wizened but doubled-over man in his seventies, was familiar with it, and had even helped with the set-up of the water pipes; he said he was too old to care about getting fired.

Every day thereafter, upon my return from the city, I wearily mounted the stairs to the garden. Sometimes I pitched in, doing some transplanting or trimming. Other times, I sat down on a bench with a book, inhaled the chlorophyll-laced air, and simply meditated to the sound of the running water. By the fifth or sixth day, I had become tired of running around the city, catching the Metro, wandering through the mazes, and standing outside museums I couldn't afford to enter. My last day in town, I spent on the roof instead. The garden became a way for me to focus, to stop the world outside for a moment, to collect my bearings, to see what was important to me. I learned how important it was to have some sort of retreat, however temporary or aesthetically challenged, in which to gather my thoughts and reach conclusions.

One interesting little scrap of information I gleaned from the Franklin-Covey site (amidst the cries for corporate excellence and "synergy!") is this: in 1900, we could expect a thousand significant bits of information every six months; in 1960, it was every week; today, it is every hour. No wonder we often succumb to information overload. How can we effectively filter this amount of data barraging us from a thousand different directions and still think clearly enough, still direct the full power of our minds, without being sidetracked or disturbed? How many times have you been pursuing a thought, only to have it driven from your head by the sound of email arriving, or the phone ringing?

Although I still take the occasional opportunity to escape into the woods, on most days the experience of using paper is closest to my rooftop garden. For a few instants, I can turn away from the computer, from the madness of the office, from the fast-moving world outside, and concentrate. A blank sheet, a nice pen, a door that closes, a monitor with an off switch, and a phone with a do-not-disturb button isn't anywhere near the beautiful hues of green and gold and red of the rooftop I knew in Paris, but it will suffice for now. For five or ten minutes, I can be alone with my thoughts, away from the fast-paced digital world teeming with distractions, and focus once more.

I really don't think I'm alone in this need.

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one of my favourite books is

one of my favourite books is the "secret garden", and one of my favourite movies "green card"... just for the gardens. I love this.


Beautiful essay, Doug - thanks for sharing! :-)

Create your own Paradise

Great essay Doug! Of course real paper is plant material.
Geoff Hamilton's book 'Paradise Gardens'has great tips on how to create your own secluded garden,4,,66,60

What an evocative scene you paint!

You have such a way with words.... nothing better than someone who can bring another time and place to such living breathing VIBRANT life! Thank you....

NOTHING is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool! [Silvermoon's Law]

Rooftop in Paris


I felt I was in a movie scene then. I was there. How lovely to have that snippet of memory to hold out in the light when you so need to. We sure are on tech overload in North America and I am so glad that It isn't worse ie: living downtown Toronto working for a demanding company and relying on a blackberry to tell me how my life shall unfold. I am happy to live where solace is a 5 minute drive away where on a sunny day you can feel the strong wind blow off all the negativity and cleanse the soul.
Thanks for sharing that lovely story.