I’m in some strange mental territory here, so bear with me a while. I hope to make it worth our time.
First things first, though–disclaimers.
No, I have not received any sort of terminal diagnosis. I am, so far as I know, absolutely no closer to dying today than I was yesterday. Unless, of course, you count the totality of my days being minus one. In which case, sheesh, whatever dude. That’s true of all of us.
And no, I’m not thinking of hurting myself, either.
I am, however, in a strange frame of mind because of something kinda, well, off my usual topics of discussion: gardens.
Yes, I’m blaming gardens for this.
I should explain.
Fall usually fires me up, with hot comfort food and long cool days. I enjoy being outside in fall, and I love holidays that encourage me to hang out with family and friends. But this year, we got no autumn at all. Summer shook hands with winter, with daily temperature swings in the neighborhood of forty degrees. Then the heat ran out suddenly, like a fire smothered with a bucket of cold water. I’ve been bottled up indoors like a recluse, first from the heat, and now from the cold and rain, for months straight. We had to curtail our pumpkin hunting because of rain and a vicious wind. We stamped through a Thanksgiving Day pie walk as fast as we could, pummeled by a wind chill that put us nearly at single digits. I haven’t even gotten to work in the yard this year. Not once. It was a blazing hot summer and then a burning cold winter, with the only breaks in that weather being pouring rain.
Frankly, this weather has been pretty bad for my mental health.
On a dreary day last week, when the clouds were low and the rain splattered the windows and the cold was seeping into my bones, I looked out my windows at the remnants of leaves left on the trees and felt pretty empty. This nameless season (I couldn’t really call it “fall;” that would imply that we’d had an entire season that could’ve deserved the title) made me think, Damn, I need a hot meal, and I need to see sunshine, and I need to see something pretty. But I had neither the time nor the energy to go all the way to the art museum for something pretty, and God knew I wasn’t going to get sunshine on such a nasty day. So I settled down on my couch with a hot lunch and Netflix, and hoped to find something that could fill the big cold empty in my heart.
I found, of all things, Monty Don’s Italian Gardens.
I like Italy a lot. I’ve only been there once, mind you, so it’s not like I have tremendous history with the place. But even back in 1993, when my sister and I went through Venice and Florence and Rome, we needed Italy. We’d been to all kinds of wonderful places in our European trip, yes, but we were two Florida girls who’d just spent three straight weeks under-dressed for rainy latitudes akin to New Jersey, New York, and Canada. Before Italy we were tired and cold and sick in a way that only travelers can get. We even passed up the chance to go with a friend to see Austria, because we wanted to see Italy instead. I’ll freely admit, it wasn’t for the history, or the art, or the food. We just wanted to be warm.
Riding the train into Venice, the water all around us a sheet of blued steel melted flat by the sticky heat coming in the windows, our train tracks a line disappearing into the heat-haze of the lagoon, I swear to you that I felt my bones soften.
And I was 20 then, and in perfect health.
So, 46 now, and in not-so-perfect health, once again stuck (by choice) for a bit too long near those cold damned latitudes, I felt the big cold empty that had replaced my heart and my sense of personal comfort. When I saw the Netflix thumbnail for Italian Gardens I thought, Oh yeah, that’ll do.
And it did. Just seeing that many huge trees baking in the sun, hearing the rustle in the leaves, watching the obviously warm breeze playing with the host’s shirttails like a mischievous kid…oh yeah, that did a lot to help my attitude. I didn’t even need to binge the show. Just one hot meal plus one sunny garden, and I could get back to paying bills and shuttling laundry without feeling like I was dragging my body and my spirit around from within a broken iron cage.
I immediately recommended the show to my family, and they’ve enjoyed it, too, though I suspect not for the same reasons. After all, they still live in Florida. They assume the world is going to be hot the way I assume the world is going to be cold. They can enjoy and appreciate Monty Don and his Italian gardens, but they don’t need it. I do.
And that need led to the strange thought process of today. Because it occurred to me, with that sideways slide of the mind that heralds a thought that I’d never entertained before–hadn’t even seen before, let alone considered–that what I needed most about those gardens was the way they made me feel. Yes, I wasn’t actually there, in the sunshine and the breeze, but they reminded me forcibly of times that I have been. And those memories, of warmer times with a happier version of myself, have been a tremendous boon during the last two years. When my body and spirit are feeling pinched and trapped and cold, stuck in an iron-hard reality that isn’t friendly, I need to be reminded that things like warmth and light and welcome-ness exist. I need to feel them.
Monty Don’s Italian Gardens isn’t a “gardens of the rich and famous” show (though it can be at times). I hate that type of show, because I’m not wowed by either riches or fame, or what those things can buy. To me, all that is a waste of resources, and, worse, it’s a giant fuck-you to the world if the person who owns all that is a greedy, worthless bastard. MDIG can be forgiven its occasional “rich and famous” moments because the people who made those gardens are a few hundred years dead, and their hubris has since been subsumed into the dedication of the people who make maintaining those gardens a labor of love today.
What MDIG does, mostly, is focus on how a particular garden is experienced by the individual as he or she stands in a particular place, and how it makes them feel. It’s about what vistas are presented. What sounds or smells can be experienced. How the gardener achieved those particular effects, and, more importantly, why the gardener chose to do those things for the person traveling the garden.
There’s an old saying that goes, “A person may forget what you said or did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.” And if my life is to be summed up–as a garden is a miniature summing-up of someone’s particular vision of nature–how would it make someone else feel? Especially, as in the case of these gardens whose makers are centuries dead, if I’m not there to escort the viewer and curate my efforts and apologize for their shortcomings?
It’s something of the old question, “What will I leave behind,” but it’s more than that. How would my accomplishments (or lack thereof) make someone feel, regardless of whether it’s about me or about their own lives? Has my life helped someone feel better about themselves, or about their place in the world? If the answer is yes to any of those questions, then how did I accomplish that effect, and do I have the time left to do more of it, and better? And if the answer is no, on what do I focus my efforts so that I can change at least one of those negative answers to a yes?
The last two years, for me, has been a crash course in realizing that many of the things that I’ve been taught by my culture as being appropriately grand endpoints for the building of “legacy”–things like lots of kids, lots of money, big projects, health, youth, beauty, fame, whatever–were either not available to me personally, or were never anything but a pipe dream for anyone. Lots of kids just means each gets progressively less parenting and progressively less security, as your resources get spread thinner and thinner; having lots of kids is no guarantee that you’ll raise even one kid who would be a boon to your old age. Lots of money buys a modicum of comfort and security, but it’s still no defense against old age, infirmity, and death, and it brings with it the question of which deals were struck with which devils to acquire it all. Big projects fail more often than they succeed; health and youth are fleeting; beauty, too; and don’t get me started on the shit-show that fame can be.
So what, in a cynical and kinda broken world, will really endure?
MDIG points at an answer. Those gardens endured, not because people were wowed by their long-dead makers, or just because the gardens themselves were beautiful (lots of beautiful stuff disappears forever every day). These gardens make people feel good to be alive. They make people feel, if only briefly, better about living. And people return to these places over and over again, and resurrect them from being bombed out in wars, and protect them from the works of nature and man, not just because the gardens are beautiful, but because the gardens make the people feel beautiful, too. It’s beautiful just to be there, seeing those sights and smelling those smells and breathing that air.
And since every human life can be viewed as a garden of some kind or another, what does my garden look like? Is it beautiful? Does it make other people feel better to be there? Because I’m pretty sure that that is the only legacy that endures: a beauty that people can revisit and respond to and put their own mark on and link to their own experience. What we leave behind accomplishes nothing if it doesn’t manage to take on a life of its own.
That’s why kids are often the best legacy that most people can aspire to: because the kids grow up and, using the beauty their parents instilled in them as a launch pad, they develop beauty that is uniquely theirs, and then pass that along to the next generation.
A beautiful painting can be admired, yes, but can anyone touch it? Can anyone ever improve it? And what happens when it burns?
Lots of money can be admirable in its own way, yes, but can a spreadsheet embrace you? Can it make you laugh? And what happens when it’s spent?
Kids and gardens are a lot alike in some ways. They’re both growing things that can give great comfort and love to people that their makers will never meet.
So, my question remains: what kind of garden has my life made thus far? Is it a garden that people like? Do they feel more beautiful for having entered it? Can my garden endure, and take on a life of its own when I’m gone? Has my garden been enough of a protection and an inspiration for my child to grow one of her own someday?
What will I leave behind? And how will it make people feel?