Sunday, May 27, 2012

And the women cometh...

Graduation speeches capture a reality our theories do not: that the self is not an atomic isolate, nor is it community bound and reliant on the predicates of those collectives for its identity. But it is both.

We are composites of others--a society of selves within each of us. We are born into communities, though not of our own choosing (choice is partially left to us later in life). We combine influences of our parents and family, our friends and our teachers. We derive meaning from collective affiliations, and identify our selves along with others. Yet we do so in ways that do invariably distinguish our selves from other selves; this we call our individuality. The danger is in elevating that individuality to the status of icon, or holy relic--inviolable and sacrosanct--for the truth of the matter is that by detaching the self from the communities in which that self resides, the self is violated for we reject or deny that which gives that self meaning.

The danger also lies in reducing individuality to a derivative of community, for the truth of the matter is that our individuality--those unique combinations of identities and influences, those composites of selves that we become--contributes to community, and by extinguishing individuality, we stagnate community and render it neutered to change. That we might call authoritarianism. 

(Sorry, folks. I was (partially) trained as a theorist. See? A community of selves--theorist selves, geeks-a-million--revealing itself as a warped imagination.)
Speaking of warped....I think in a different world (and at a different age, oh...yeah...and a different socio-economic status) Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench would be two of my close friends. I seem to attract older women--guys, calm down--and enjoy hearing their stories. Okay, perhaps not all of the stories, for at some point in many a conversation (with the cashiers at Costco, or the teller at the bank), the subject morphs into health issues (not big things like cancer, but a little arthritis here, or a flabby underarm there). Goodness. And why do they tell me such things? Of course, you politely and sympathetically smile, offer friendly words of support, and move on when the opportunity presents itself. Which it doesn't until another customer appears. Phew. Thank goodness there are other people in the world to save me from myself--and from talk about flabby underarms!

As color in the garden morphs into rich and saturated summer hues, I suddenly see a society of selves, variously chatting, gossiping, sharing, and bonding.

And I thought of the Red Hat Society, the result, the website tells us, "of a few women deciding to greet middle age with verve, humor and elan." Members "believe silliness is the comedy relief of life, and since[they] are all in it together, [they] might as well join red-gloved hands and go for the gusto together."

Apparently, the Queen Mother (ahem, not that Queen Mum, but Sue Ellen Cooper, the Red Hat Society's founder), impulsively bought a bright red fedora one day. Later, she happened upon a poem by Jenny Joseph, entitled "Warning," in which an older woman bedecked herself in red hat and purple clothing. Sue Ellen borrowed the idea and gave a close friend a copy of the poem along with a red hat, and the gift-giving replicated itself birthday after birthday.


And silly.

And lovely.

Viet and I have occasionally encountered the Red Hat Society at The British Bell Tea Room in Newark, DE.  Gusto, indeed! If we were the staid parents in the corner, they were the riotous children in the center.

"Madames, please. This is a respectable establishment," I'd hear myself murmur under my breath, followed quickly by, "but by all means continue!"

The party at 410 has been building up for several weeks. The red tulips and the Blue Star Lithodora were the opening act,

followed many weeks later by the azalea and May Night Salvia.

The rhododendron quickly assumed prominence, which provided an eye-catching backdrop for the gradually opening Siberian Irises.

The Ben Franklin Double- (though not quite) Red Peony decided to join the conversation, which didn't last long after two heavy spring rains.

So here we are in the late May garden: not quite red, though certainly purple, flowers busily communing, laughing really. Lavatera (Red Rum) is in full regalia 5 weeks before her time (damn it; there will be nothing left in bloom for the Wilmington City Garden Contest in mid-June), while the Siberian Irises are now past their prime.

The color combination is simply inviting, perhaps because I think of the lively women of the Red Hat Society, and the words and laughter that freely and jovially pass their lips. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hokusai (and Hiroshige) Moments, or, On Learning How to See

Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Hokusai (1760-1849), two famed ukiyo-e masters, are partially known for their Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series (both produced such collections) in which they depict that iconic volcano through diverse perspectives.

Whether up-close--only heavenly clouds can break that sheer viscerality that assaults the viewer,

or from a distance viewed as an appendage to a landscape as seen from under a bridge,

  across Tago Bay in its subtle dominance,

or through the crest of a wave (Great Wave off Kanagawa is the most famous print in Hokusai's series),

Mount Fuji captivates the imagination...but even more so, in my view, when depicted in a variety if seasonal vignettes, such as during Hanami (Cherry Blossom Festival)

or during winter, when tea at the chashitsu (teahouse) is most welcome.

Today, after a much needed break from grading (umm...perhaps it really was a break from procrastination), I moved the Japanese lantern from the bed formerly know as "The Lantern Bed" where it was increasingly obstructed from view by the Oakleaf and Lady-in-Red Hydrangeas, to the back of the property in the as-yet-unnamed bed.

There it now sits, a veritable Fuji in my garden, prominent in a subtle kind of way.

Multiple photographs of the same subject, especially when taken from similar vantage points, might strike one as exceedingly dull. It probably is.

But artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige were compelled to fixate on an object, thereby turning it into a subject of study, precisely because we learn and grow when we fashion the time and space and the mental acuity to examine that subject even from subtle shifts in perspective.

Light changes our perception of the subject.

Visual trajectories that take in different objects, or variations in such trajectories (or angles of study) that alter, even subtly, the objects themselves visually re-situate the subject in its environment in ways that illuminate its relationship with objects around it.

A wide shot reduces the lantern to one of several subjects which animate the garden and reveal a theme much more widely diffused
than a segmented shot that situates the lantern and Guacamole Hosta in a particular kind of axial affiliation.

Or this west side and corner bed shot: the presence of the lantern refocuses our gaze not on it, but on variation of foliage color, shape, and texture. The leaves of Big Blue Hosta appear thick, even from this distance, while the Nandina foliage, just above the unmistakable leaves of Oak Leaf Hydrangea in the photo, is wispy; its alias, Heavenly Bamboo, seems apt even from "up here."

Views of lantern: my Hiroshige or Hokusai moment when I learn not just to look but to see...

Adult Pleasures XVI: Schadenfreude

What is life but a continual exercise in revision?

We think about that email we sent or the response we gave in a work meeting and mentally revise how (both procedurally and substantively) we will respond in a similar, future situation. Always, we wonder: do we show all our cards in an effort to make a statement, or are we more circumspect, leaving subtlety and subtext to assume the burden of our messages to others?

We rewind a thousand times the memories of our conversations, lectures, and work presentations because we perceive some flaw in our communication. We aim to isolate those errors and disturbances, and remedy them so our embarrassment is curtailed  in the future.

We rewrite our prose to clarify our thoughts.

We remind ourselves of the kind of person we wish to be.

We rejuvenate with yoga, while aspiring to not let the world trample on our spirits so much.

We rewind, relive, rejoin, remand, remind, remonstrate, redirect, resurrect, recalculate, redistribute, readjust, repair, recycle, reassign, reexamine, and review.

Much of our life activity, it seems, revolves around words with prefixes, all in an attempt to improve and Become.

But if we are not careful, the aspirational trajectory of our lives may become overwhelmed by our hyperactive superegos which continually remind us of our failings and foibles.

And so it is easy to understand why the Germans so efficiently (always efficiently) compressed a big emotional experience into (for German) a not so long word: Schadenfreude. For here we have the encapsulation of an experience whereby the emphasis shifts away from our self-induced purges to concentrating on the misfortunes and mistakes of others. For once, we can silence the incessant inner nagging and see that others, too, make and receive their folly.

Ah, yes, Schadenfreude. We know it well, even if we hesitate to admit it.

But sometimes the misfortunes and mistakes of others present us with opportunities--and that is something to really celebrate.

For instance, I brought home this Foxglove--a plant I otherwise would not willingly situate in my garden (they are pretty, but, as my dear reader knows, I am a garden snob and I have peculiar, if fluctuating, tastes). But, it was a gift from a gardening friend, an extra, and gardeners cannot willingly send plants to their deaths if they can help it (hence the generosity of gardeners: "please, come and take these plants." "OF COURSE you can have these; I am dividing and removing." "No, no, you aren't imposing; I offered, silly!")

It was labeled creamy yellow, and I thought it would look smashing in the yellow and blue bed.

Well, look at it. What idiot switched the tag?

What an eyesore.

(Though I hear my cousin Arianna now: "Pink: you always need pink." (Can one discern her favorite color?)

She would be thrilled to see how pink, a color I tried to banish from my garden, has made deep intrusions into my garden--always unconscious, always startling and denounced, yet always welcomed with a murmur, "gosh, that's so beautiful."

Her Schadenfreude--"Ha! Pink Prevails! The ban collapses!"--becomes, curiously, my delight too!

As I stared at this eyesore, I had a thought: move it. (Ahem. yes, dear reader, I am a bit slow.)

How perfect an accompaniment to the blues and purples of the East Side Shade Bed!

 How perfect an accompaniment to the neighbor's rhododendron!

Transplanting the Foxglove thus gave me an opportunity to revise and amend, which for all intents and purposes translated into a visit to my favorite garden center.

A Thunderbolt Hosta took the place of the Foxglove, its blues a perfect contrast to the oranges and yellows of Lena Scotch Broom, which is now underplanted with Orange Marmalade Hosta, and Citronelle Heuchera.

Schadenfreude: it gives us pleasure in so many ways.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Sisters Are Doin' It...

We all have our Proust moments, don't we?

Not all of us eat madeleines everyday, so perhaps our Proustian recollections have become less frequent, stymied by the inability to find time to vacate our brains and relive the beyond.

Madeleines, as tasty as they are (especially those at our favorite tea shop in the Brandywine Valley), are not a prerequisite, a ticket to remembrance of things past. That's not the point, is it?

All we need is the faint wafting of an odor, a reminiscent taste, an evocative sound to hurtle us back into a moment of time.

I've had several Proustian moments today.
A major accident on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway this morning forced us all to stop, and there along the roadside I noticed Carolina Allspice, and inhaled its sweet aroma. I do have a dwarf Carolina allspice in my garden, and for a brief time I was transported from my traffic-induced irritation (and the knowledge I would most certainly be late to my Florida nieces' band performance in Washington, DC) back to the tranquility of my garden. I felt myself leaning in somewhere between the Buddhas to inhale the aromas emanating from the profusion of crown or lotus-like flowers on its stems earlier this spring.

Later, I had lunch with my nieces (they had but little free time in a very busy weekend schedule). We walked into an establishment and the yeasty wafts of baking bread transformed me into a little guy, waking to the smells of the bread my mother used to bake.

After another trying drive home, I meandered the gardens to unwind. One peony bud on the Ben Franklin Double Red caught my attention.

Two little ants were working their magic, "orbiting around [the] bud like satellites."

And I heard the music.

I remembered one remarkable evening in Denver, with my dear Elizabeth. It had been exceedingly hot that day, but, as is usual during evenings in the Mile High, the air thinned and cooled after the sun fell behind the mountains. We climbed into her car, sped down the highway.

She opened the sunroof, the wind whipping our hair.

And on the radio played the Eurythimcs' Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves. Up the volume went. She sang and I listened, feeling the intermixing of pockets of heat radiating from the highway with the cooling air.

Her work keeps her abroad, and we don't see each other as often as we did. Recently, she returned for briefings in Washington and her home leave before her new posting begins--this one in a rather unstable, and, more alarming, dangerous, country. I went to see her; we picked up where we left off as if we were together the previous weekend (that's really the sign of the depth of friendship, I think).

I can't fathom that I won't see her for two years. I worry about her. Mind you, Elizabeth is a tough gal. She climbs mountains (as in Everest, high peaks in the Andes, etc.; yes, there are mountains that are not high enough for her). She runs. She excels. But physical strength can be no match for those determined to hate you.

(But who can hate Elizabeth? Impossible. Yet she is American.)

There were those two ants, orbiting, helping the peony bud begin its final journey. Sisters doin' it, really.

I remembered our visit, yet my mind did not go farther back in time to recollect all of the memories we created. Instead, it hurtled forward into an abyss of missing her. Can we have Proustian moments steeped not in the past but in anticipation of the future?

I watched the ants.

And then I wept.

Be safe, my dear Elizabeth.

And know you are loved.

Cinco de Mayo

With rhododendron and azalea salsa in the front,

and Guacamole (hosta), in the back,

the gardens at 410 are ready for a little Cinco de Mayo celebration!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Buddhas (at Bamiyan)

My big Buddha now has a "little Buddha brother," which I've situated in the East Side Shade bed.

The arrangement reminds me of another famous pair of Buddhas, Vairocana and Sakyamuni, the 6th century Buddhas of Bamiyan. One stood at 180 feet, the other at 121 feet tall; both were for a long time the largest examples of standing Buddha stone carvings in the world. But, after 14 centuries looking out over an Afghani valley, they fell, one after the other, in March 2001, brought down by the Taliban's insane intolerance of difference.

Of course, the story is apparently not that simple. The decision to destroy them was made after a Swedish monuments expert offered to pay for the restoration of the heads which had deteriorated over time. The Taliban minister demanded instead that the money be used to help children (why do I find that hard to believe?); the monuments expert responded flatly, "No, the money is just for the statues, not for the children." This sent the Taliban minister into a rage; in went the explosives, and down came the Buddhas.

Now, some may think: 6th century Buddhas on the one hand, starving children on the other. Hmmm... no brainer... But my doubt regarding the use of the money derives from the fact that the Taliban, of course, never did publicize the fact that, according to an Afghani Ambassador, a foreign museum offered to buy the Buddhas (the money of which could have been used to feed the children).

The story (of which I have brushed but the surface), therefore, seems really more about an affront to the idea of a shared global cultural heritage, not about idolatry an an assault on its brand of radicalism as the Taliban claimed. It is about the assault against different and plurality, about human history and creation and ingenuity against an omnipotent God, knowable only, of course, by an extreme and deranged group of henchmen.

Bamiyan must always live with the massive scars in the mountainside, though Japan and Switzerland have offered the reconstruct the Buddhas with fragments of the originals pieced together with silicon (work is being done to that effect). While the voids demand to be filled, visually and aesthetically, I wonder if the world, and the Afghanis, should be forced to suffer the perpetual emptiness of space to remind us all of intolerance's ugliness. For recounting numbers of lives lost is an anesthetic; ears numb and minds wander. But seeing the physicality of a void: now that is a statement.

In this moment in time, my little Buddha sits, a gaping hole in the gardenscape before it, a tiny presence in a vast world. And the visual effect, if one replaces the omnipresence of green with tan, is that of a protective shell encasing a Buddha, surrounded by nothingness. At Bamiyan today, we have the reverse: a protective shell encasing nothingness.   


The emptiness before my Buddha is a temporary one caused by the shyness of Autumn Fern, which really likes to make a grand entrance, guaranteed only with consistent warmth and after all other guests have arrived.

While staring at the void in my garden, and gazing at my little Buddha, I was suddenly struck by how much our gardens become reflections of not our selves, but of our views of the world, and not of our views of the world, but microcosms of the world itself. No wonder why we gardeners continually arrange and rearrange, subtract and add, divide--though multiplying is not up to us. Nature retains that sexier, less labor intensive function for herself.

Why? Because we continually need to revisit our views of the world and experiment with our place in it. This may be a heavy burden to place upon the garden, but I cannot help but think of the parallels and representations found within in, and borne by it.

And though gardeners detest every bit of empty space and seek to fill it, the voids are necessary (if only briefly), for they make us aware, all too palpably aware, of the richness and enormity and density and levity of Nothingness.

Could anything be more Buddhist?

** Thanks to Viet for "seeing" the Bamiyan Buddhas in our garden**