Friday, September 26, 2014

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall

"What do you do when the script you have planned for yourself doesn't work out? How do you graciously slip into Plan B?" These are the words Carol Wall uses to describe her diagnosis of breast cancer and her struggle to see the richness of  life.

Her memoir is also the story of a unique friendship - that between a Kenyan man (Giles Owita) and a high school English teacher in Roanoke, Virginia. During the course of two years, depicted by the changing seasons, Wall's property is transformed from a neglected and bleak plot of land into a beautiful garden full of color and life. In that time, the author is forced to confront her own conflicted feelings about her aging parents and come to terms with a past she has long buried.

Her fear of touching soil has deep, psychological roots and her general pessimism began when she was a mere child. She once had a sister with Down's Syndrome - a sister who died in childhood. Her mother never discussed the loss with her, yet the fear of losing another child left a deep imprint on both of them.

Likewise, Giles has a past - a past only fully revealed at the book's end. Both he and his wife, Bianca, came to the States fourteen years ago to pursue graduate degrees. They have doctorates from Virginia Tech - he in horticulture and Bianca in human nutrition. Giles' resume contains a list of academic honors and agricultural and horticultural research for the Kenyan government. Neither has been able to secure positions at local universities. Instead, Bianca is working as a nurse and Giles is bagging groceries, working at a plant nursery, and asking a mere $10 per hour from individuals for work in their gardens.

Giles' optimism is an inspiration to the author. Now facing her father's struggle with Alzheimer's and her mother's failing health, combined with her difficult cancer treatment, their friendship deepens and becomes more honest. The garden serves as a healing metaphor.  Walls reflects: "(Giles) traveled 7000 miles to teach me that the ground in winter which is gray and yellow and hard as a brick holds a thousand lovely secrets."
As do we all.

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening is a homage to a dear friendship and to the wonders that life holds.

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