Saturday, December 4, 2010

Remains of the Day

Our lives, it seems, are mostly spent in the service of others, though the terms of our service both vary—educating youth or trading stock, fire fighting or serving food, nursing patients or manufacturing products—and are (for most of us, anyhow) much less repugnant than in times past.

We do not, I observe, often reflect on such service, or even think of what we do as serving others. So self-referential has become the I, that the presence of the Other, the You, recedes far into the background not as a subject but as an object to be controlled, manipulated, managed. Consequently, our conception of community becomes diluted.

Our preferred formulations of that which we do have lost a vocabulary and a certain sense of service: “I work at ____ [fill in the blank]” or “I am a _____” are statements in which the self or the singular "I" stand at the center of our individual universes. There is no necessary danger in that. Rather, the danger is in thinking this universe is the all of our lives. As one Wilmington, Delaware billboard facing the northbound lanes of I-95 tells me, “It Really is All About You.”

Students, patients, customers, consumers: these become not the subjects of our professions but, if we are not careful, the scourge of them.

To be fair, that billboard is the advertisement of a local bank, and thus the subject of it is the customer. Surely, we would all agree, our hard-earned money is ours, and we care that it is not recklessly invested, FDIC guarantees notwithstanding. We intuit the billboard’s message as ultimately acceptable not for what it says in the literal sense, but for what it communicates.

And so I wonder what we make of service: what remains at the end of the day?

Stevens, the imperturbable butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 Booker Prize masterpiece, The Remains of the Day, played ever so superlatively by Anthony Hopkins in the eponymous film adaptation, has, after a near-lifetime of service to others, finally the opportunity to reflect on the terms of his service to Lord Darlington--a staunch advocate, if not architect, of appeasement (an obviously not dangerous word in some British circles, 1938). To complicate matters, he must manage his feeling for Miss Kenton, the head housekeeper, played by the ever brilliant actress, Emma Thompson--which he manages the same way he manages the death of his father, the former chief butler of the Darlington estate. Stevens’ self-imposed repressive silence drips off the page, or off the screen. The reader/viewer feels the angst and the tension. {I feel it now while writing this.} Stevens does not question, for he has taken our condition to the opposite extreme: the terms of service to others dictate the annihilation of self outside of “private hours” (of which, in such a grand estate, there were few).  

In what may seem a tangential connection to the garden, I do reflect on the nature of my service to the 2010 garden and the nature of my garden’s service to me, especially as late autumn has settled into the Delaware Valley. The competition between seasons has intensified, and after an unseasonable bout of warm, humid weather several days ago, the temperatures suddenly plunged in the wake of a cold front. The long range forecast calls for evening lows in the 20s, and daytime high in the 30s or 40s. {Not cold for some of you, but the beginnings of a Delaware winter nevertheless.}

With the hard frosts last week, the garden has passed into memory. Le (2010) jardin c’est mort. Vive le jardin.

I scan the garden beds. The community--the garden itself, the myriad of specimens and the singular "I" which exists to create and tend to the garden--has lapsed into a virtual silence. Remains of the season surround me: the dried conical vestiges of Oak Leaf Hydrangea, brown and crisp, neatly contrast to the slender verticality of yellowed Shenandoah Switch Grass.  The verdancy of Nandina assumes a fervid character in this yellowed and browned autumnal palette, its own preternaturally radiant red berries contrasting with itself. {The clumps of berries are sparse this year owing to the virus that caused the astonishing decimation of the Honey Bee, the Colony Collapse Disorder, which is a stark reminder of our sheer dependence on the little Honey Bee for pollination and, consequently the fruits (and vegetables!) of their labor.} And the still rose-burgundy globes of the Nikko Blue Hydrangea begin to enter their final phase: brown.

And I have come to a new realization. We do not so much preside over the end of one season, witness the deaths of tender plants, and watch the herbaceous perennials rapidly retreat back into the soil, and the deciduous tress and shrubs self-denude--the sinuous architecture of this Climbing Hydrangea a visceral reminder to all those who prefer the orgiastic delight of the flesh that beauty runs much deeper. To be more philosophical about it, this may very well embody Kant's pithy notation that "out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made." Sure, we did not make this Climbing Hydrangea--it unfolded not merely out of an internal teleology, but was shaped and prodded into development by the conditions in which it was situated. But in its imperfections, in its staunch resistance to the shapes we invariably impose on it, in its very naturalness, it nonetheless exudes an exceptionality and a beauty we cannot replicate.  

Rather, we prepare for the arrival of a new one. We collect our clay pots and scrub them with a bleach solution; we clean our tools; we decide which plants to overwinter and which to relegate to the grand garden in the sky; we cover beds with the compost we have let cook all season; we shred leaves and add to them the newly vacant compost heap; we plant our bulbs; and we begin our vigil for the next season, looking for hope in the space where Winter Aconite will appear in mild Januarys or to the winter blooming varietals of Witch Hazels…

Remains of the day are, yes, those remnants and residues of a life lived. Some do pass as the cycle of life dictates, but they are pause for reflection for the next stage. Our service to others, be they plants or animals or people, continues And so we beat on…encouraged by the verdant fortitude of the Holly Fern...borne  back ceaselessly into the past, but also, miraculously, deep into the future.

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