Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bowing Out and taking leave...

Yesterday, I began to write about the death of Christopher Hitchens (essayist, debater, journalist, critic, author, intellectual) but could not complete my thoughts. I needed more time to think.

Later in the day, the media reported that Cesaria Evora, the "Barefoot Diva" of Cape Verde who graced us with her soulful Crioulo, had died.

And this morning, while perusing the online newspapers, breaking news alerts began to announce the virtually unthinkable: Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright, last president of a Czechoslovakia that fell back upon itself and into history during and as a result of the "Velvet Divorce," and first president of the new Czech Republic, poet, intellectual, soul, died at the age of 75.

Havel has bowed out, his last performance--which was his only performance, his life--being his best.

My generation grew up in the era of Reagan and Thatcher, but it was, too, the era of Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa, James Baker and Vaclav Havel, and yes, even of Diana, Princess of Wales. (Oh, how much of our lives was framed around the ending of the Cold War, and the optimism that came with being liberated from shackles of reified thinking.) Havel's death for me was unthinkable precisely because he was larger than life, much like Gorbachev and even, though many will chastise me, Lady Thatcher herself.  Though, in the end, we know all of them, all of us, are mere mortals, some more plagued by doubts and scandals and lapses in judgment than others. But unthinkable, still, because they become, for better or for worse, part of us. Each generation must, I think, consider its leaders and select its icons (political, social, cultural) based on this feeling and judgment: they, who are often born in a different era and shaped by different experiences, help define us.

Gradually, then, as each one passes, the vestiges of our childhoods and young adult years pass with them, and we are forced to confront our own precarious grip on life. Perhaps that is the more unthinkable aspect of this landscape of mortality we are all forced to tread upon.

Gradually, that landscape appears increasingly...not hollow...but emptied, and because emptied, hollowed: if our inhabited landscapes of friendship and communities are infrequently punctuated by absences and leavings, then over time it is the infrequency of personages who punctuate the vast absences. Only structures and spaces remain.

So it is with the garden. Each autumn, we watch as first the annuals--by definition fragile--vanish after an evening chill. Then the more sensitive of the perennials (the Astilbes and, over time, the vast hosta family) take their leave, followed, almost always finally, by the hardiest of the perennials--those show queens from the House of Asteraceae (the asters and the chrysanthemums and the Feverfew) who would not dare willingly part with the limelight that becomes solely their own so late in the gardening season. Who could blame them.

This year, as I've noted, our unusually temperate autumn has produced an oddity: even 2 days ago, the Creeping phlox offered unseasonal blooms, the geraniums remained resplendent, the peonies and daffodils were sending out shoots, the Climbing Hydrangea began to bud out, and the Toad Lily reappeared after a brief disappearance. Yet more "fitting" December weather beginning late Friday is proving to be the curtain call to the 2011 garden, and thus for all those hardy souls and all those early risers to bow out and take their leave.

In botanical terms, though, most return.

In human terms, we only have that which remains.

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