Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Meryl Streep in the Garden

If we think about it, our everyday lives are full of moral choices.

Should we violate the sign that says "This driveway is not a thru passage" and use it as such to avoid the backed up traffic at the signal light?

Should we cheat?

Should we tell the cashier that s/he gave us back $15 extra in change?

These are important decisions, yes, but rarely are we called upon to make exceptional decisions. Of course, exceptional begs definition. And here, in this limited instance, I define it in relation to life and death.

No: rarely are we called upon to make such exacting, portentous decisions.

And so when we are forced to make such decisions, we often act in unexpected ways. In the laboratory that is our mind, under constraints of endogenously designed hypotheticals, we decide one way and envision that we will act in particular kinds of ways to reflect the kind of person we would like to be.

But in the laboratory that is not the mind, that is, in the laboratory that is the so-called real world, faced with practical constraints and exogenously defined parameters, we most likely think and act differently--in ways that reflect the kind of person we actually are.

In Sophie's Choice, a commandant indicates that the Pole ranks slightly higher than the Jew in the Nazi racial hierarchy. That gives the Pole the privilege of choice: you may only keep one of your two children. You decide.

Meryl Streep's character resists, protests, refuses, and then, when the commandant orders both children to be removed, and the soldiers comply, a struggle results and she screams, "Take my little girl! Take my baby!"

The choice is one we cannot fathom.

The reader may balk--and rightly so--at the parallel I am about to make. But given the cinematic portrayal of a more than likely real world event, I have fictionalized precedent before me.

Last night's freeze warning (it was 31 degrees when I awoke) prompted me to make some hard decisions: which plants to protect, and which plants to leave exposed. I had one tarp, and several empty plant containers, and so could only save a few from likely frost.

Oddly, I did not think and was not sentimental. The tarp went over the bare root Japanese anemones that I planted several weeks ago. The emptiness in my bank account is still raw.

The containers were placed over a surprising assortment of plants: surprising because in the laboratory of the hypothetical, I would have chosen somewhat differently.

The Ben Franklin Double Red Peony received protection, while the more prized Chinese Double White Solange Peony did not. The former had begun to produce leaves, while the latter remains in gerkin-like form. Besides, the Double White failed to produce flowers last year. Perhaps I was subconsciously punishing it.

The Japanese Beech Ferns in front of the Buddha received protection (divine intervention?), and so did the European Ginger (hail to the imperialists?), but neither the American Ginger (Gramsci has watered it so much, that only a few little bits remain) nor my favorite blue hostas did not.

So too did two of the four the Toad Lilies, but not the more glamourous and substantially larger Toad Lily (practical constraints: I did not have a container large enough to contain it).

The list is not too much longer, but the point is not to recount those granted reprieve. The point is to underscore how differently we do act when the immediacy of a situation demands the immediacy of reaction. We rise to the occasion. We act in unforeseen ways. We surprise ourselves by the person we are, because aspects of that person don't always cohere with the person we think we may be.

But all the while I methodically placed my containers around selected plants, I could hear the voice of another Meryl Streep character, the Iron Lady herself, steely calling out in the garden, "Cowardice, Cowardice, Cowardice!" 

It seems the other plants were not enthused about being rejected.  

Or perhaps I was judging myself.

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