The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Life is Not a Garden

An open-eyed and open-hearted view of this complicated world, acknowledging both disappointment and hope

Words by Elizabeth Alexander

For singers courageous enough to embrace a complex view of the world, Life Is Not a Garden offers a perspective both upbeat and real. With a hard-edged Latin groove, blues-inflected melody lines, and moments of hymn-like sweetness, this visionary song overflows with hope, determination and compassion.

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

I am not always pleased when life veers in an unforeseen direction.

The high school chorus at Community of Peace Academy had struggled for several weeks to come up with a concept for a piece of music I was writing for them. They’d shared concerns about injustice, poverty, war and prejudice. They’d affirmed strongly held beliefs about family, community, and acceptance. I had just unveiled a somewhat promising first draft based on one of their brainstorming ideas. It had an upbeat tune and a more or less positive message:

There are flowers, there are weeds.
All have blossoms, all have needs,
And a lifetime worth of seeds.
This is our garden. This is our home.

“It’s not bad or anything,” a skinny young man was saying, trying to be tactful, “but it’s just not what I would sing about, personally.”

Another student was more direct. “The people in my life always be fighting, disrespecting, judging you. But this song is like ‘be happy ‘cause everything’s fine,’ and that’s not real life.”

I tried not to think about how little time I had to finish writing this song. It’s about the process, I told myself. If the process has integrity, so will the finished product.

“I hear what you’re saying,” I said. “But if the garden metaphor won’t work, what will? What is life like for you?”

“It’s not like anything,” came an impatient reply from the back. “Life is just life.”

This was not going well. After another ten minutes of faltering communication, I threw my hands into the air. “Okay, I gave this my best shot, and it looks like I got it wrong. You’re going to have to help me out here.”

“I don’t know,” sighed one girl. “But life is not a garden, sunny and bright.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, “So what else is life NOT like?”

Suddenly there was a question they could answer. We ended the hour with a chalkboard full of ideas, and two days later I showed up with a very different draft. Hard-edged. Blues-inflected.

As I sang the new chorus something in the room woke up. Hands were raised from the back of the room, and students who’d never spoken during brainstorming now put in their two cents. On the way out a student gave me a thumbs up along with the ultimate high school compliment: “You rock.”

The new song was much harder to write than the one I’d originally envisioned. It opened with disillusionment and wandered through anger and betrayal, which meant that I had to pass through those places, too. I was often reminded how slim hope can feel. But by insisting on a darker, more complex view of the world, these young people took me to a multi-layered place I would not have gone had I been left to my own devices. Not only that, but when they premiered Life is Not a Garden, they sang it like they meant it.

Text

Life Is Not a Garden

Life is not a garden, sunny and bright,
Life is not an endless twinkle star night,
Life is not a mountain towering high,
With its spire climbing higher til it meets the sky.
Life is not a gentle flowing stream,
And no matter what the song says: Life is not a dream.

For in the world that I know, there are bitter winds that blow,
And the mountains are blocking the way I need to go.
There are storms, there is rain, there is trouble, there is pain.
There’s no doubt about it: some days I could do without it.

Life is not a garden, sunny and bright,
Life is not an endless twinkle star night,
Life is not a mountain towering high,
With its spire climbing higher ’til it meets the sky.
Life is not a gentle flowing stream,
And no matter what the song says: Life is not a dream.

For in the world where I live, there is so much to forgive,
And so many take more than they intend to give.
The unknown turns to fear, growing stronger year by year;
Then one day it’s hatred. It can get so complicated.

Life is not a garden, an Eden to behold,
But that doesn’t mean that everything is hard and barren and cold.
At any time or place a tiny miracle can bloom,
In a crowded city or a lonely room.
Find a place in the stillness of your heart,
A wilderness where something green can start to make a home.
Keep it safe and keep it warm,
Keep it sheltered from each passing storm.
Let its young and tender form remind you:
There is beauty, there is splendor yet unseen, deep within, still asleep,
Slender and rare, but always there.

For as our journeys unfold, there are many hands to hold,
And the people who love us are worth their weight in gold.
Though many tears grow from pain, some flow with joy we can’t explain.
A garden it’s not, but it’s the only world we’ve got.

Life is not a garden, row after row,
But nobody can tell me that my seeds won’t grow,
I plant them in my home, and I plant them in the street,
I plant them in the heart of every stranger I meet.

Life is not a garden, sunny and bright,
Life is not an endless twinkle star night,
Life is not a mountain towering high,
With its spire climbing higher ’til it meets the sky.
Life is not a gentle flowing stream —

But even though it is a mighty far cry
From the garden and the mountain and the starry sky,
I’m gonna keep working to make this world that dream.

Elizabeth Alexander with students from Community of Peace Academy Choir

© 2005 by Elizabeth Alexander.

Performers

Performers

SATB
Premiere: Community of Peace Academy Choir and One Voice Mixed Chorus / Jane Ramseyer Miller (St. Paul, MN)
Choir of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church / Kit Johnson (New London, CT)
Choir of Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church / Dixon Redditt (Camp Spring, MD)
Choir of Eliot Unitarian Chapel / Leon Burke III (Kirkwood, MO)
Choir of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Middleboro, MA / Jeannie Gagne (Middleboro, MA)
Choir of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville / Jason Shelton (Nashville, TN)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring / Jeffery Ames (Silver Spring, MD)
Koloszvar Ensemble of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston / Dema Solberg (Houston, TX)
Saint Paul Vocal Forum / Karin Barrett (St. Paul and Minneapolis, MN)
Unitarian Universalist Choirs: Paint Branch, Silver Spring and Davies Memorial / Dixon Redditt (Adelphi, MD)

SSAA
Premiere: MUSE, with Wyoming High School Chorus / Catherine Roma (Wyoming, OH)
Cantus Femina of Western Michigan University Women’s Chorus / Dee Gauthier (Kalamazoo, MI)
Rochester Women’s Community Chorus / Kristy Houston (Rochester, NY)
Vocalpoint / Jennifer Anderson. Benefit for Avenues for Homeless Youth (St. Cloud and St. Paul, MN)
Voices Rising / Leora Zimmer (Boston and Newton, MA)
Women in Harmony / Catherine Beller-McKenna (Portland, ME)