Sunday, February 20, 2011

SLOWNESS (an open letter to Patricia Hampl)

“Maybe the world isn’t at it’s heart so modern as we tend to think. As we walked, it kept reverting to an ancient, abiding self.”

You wrote those words while walking the hills of Umbria, actually, I imagine, you wrote words very similar but not exactly those words. Those words as they stand, as I quote them, didn’t take form until you returned to St. Paul and began working on your book Virgin Time.
I read those words on the train to Portland on Friday. I was only half an hour into my trip, when they stopped my reading. Made me reread, made me write them down in my notebook. I thought of the slowness of walking even as I raced passed the ancient, abiding world. I longed for the slowness of walking. Since I have moved to the country I find myself more often behind the windshield than with the ancient and abiding wind in may face. Even that day, when I opted to take the train, to get out from behind the windshield, and because “You don’t really need a car in Portland”, I was still separated from the world by glass and high speeds.
I tried to set aside my longing and enjoy the rock of the train and the world it passed through of beginnings and ends. Refineries, graineries and warehouses full of goods form the east ready to enter the world of trade, and the refuse of the world of trade piling up in junk yards, being dumped like homeless sofas under bridges, acting as homes. I have always had a melancholic taste for the decay of industry. Trees sprouting out of abandoned factories are like flags of a passive victory to me. I cannot let go of my nostalgia for things as they were, romanticized as they are. Or stop wishing for a ripping away of the modern world to expose the ancient, abiding self everywhere.
And yet there I was speeding to a panel discussion on garden blogging. Now nothing, at least in my estimation, is farther apart than gardening and blogging. And yet I am a gardener and a blogger, a garden-blogger. Can’t I just say a garden writer? Does the format really matter? That is why I was rushing to Portland to the panel discussion by garden-bloggers. I was looking for meaning not advice. If your sweep through the numerous garden bogs out there you’ll see there are plenty. More than enough. Maybe too many. Is that what modernity is about? Is that why modern design focuses so heavily on simplicity? Here I could blabber on. Question, question, question. Question my motives as well as the motives of modernity. But the train pulled into the station, and I would soon be on foot.
We arrived about noon and I was certainly ready for lunch having risen at 5:30 and eaten a hasty piece of toast and cup of tea in the car on the way to the station. I made a deal with myself to stop at the first Asian restaurant that I passed. I soon found myself at a fretful urban pace trying to escape the rain and find food at the same time. The traffic was noisy kicking up showers off the wet pavement. A compressor was blowing off steam and everyone was dodging in and out in a chaotic lunchtime rush to food or back to the office. And this was only Portland. Sleepy, lovely Portland. I noticed I was glad people were working at the same time I noticed I was gravitating to Koji Osakaya, “my favorite” Japanese restaurant in Portland. Actually the only Japanese restaurant I ever eaten in in Portland. I stumbled in to it on a very similar rainy day years ago and the confident and homely food offered succor. On Friday I wanted succor more than adventure. “ I could have easily stayed home,” I told myself until the warm miso soup, the oily grilled mackeral, white rice and uneventful salad began to go down. I settled a little even at the uncomfortable heights of the stool at the bar. I let dystopic thoughts of a Bladerunner-esque future, a very near and very modern future, dribble through me.
Then I caught the wings of the tea and flew off to the Portland Art Museum. There are some Japanese textiles donated by the Seattle-based garden designer Terry Welch on display along with many painted scrolls he collected. The young woman at the ticket counter acted rather disinterested in this rain soaked disheveled man until I asked her about her tattoo. Right at the neckline like a piece of fine jewelry and deliberately exposed by her low cut blouse were the words: veri veniversum vivus vici. They were scrawled in an elegant gothic script and no one could miss them nor the importance she applied to these words. I silently tried to piece together a meaning from the botanical Latin I had learned years ago. Since the train ride I realized that this trip to Portland was becoming more about a search for meaning than advice. I’m sure many people stared silently at her exposed tattoo. And I’m sure she silently took pleasure in it. People had come to the museum to look, why should they wait until they’re in the galleries. I gave up and decided to ask her, “What does your tattoo say?”
“What do you think it says,” she flirtatiously asked back. She was a beautiful woman and I’m sure she was hit on numerous times. I wasn’t hitting on her; I was looking for meaning. I needed to ask.
“Something about coming to truth...” I trailed off all the words began to look the same.
“That’s the closest anyone has ever gotten,” she was proud of me, I passed, or a least didn’t fail, her test. “ It says, ‘By the power of truth, I while living have conquered the universe.’” I scanned the words again, the curvy blue ink across her white skin.”Really?” I thought.
“It’s from Faust.” she added glibly.
I wondered if she read Faust, or just looked up Latin quotes on line when looking for a slogan. I wondered if she knew what truth was. Or if she really wanted to conquer the universe. It was a beautiful tattoo on a beautiful throat and gave me something to chew on. But like gum I chewed and chewed until my jaw was numb and my search for truth empty. I relied on the beauty of the Japanese scrolls selected and collected by Terry Welch to buoy my spirits. You could see the power of his designer’s eye in his choices. And his love of gardens, the sweep of trees, the balance of asymmetry.
That’s when they entered, hundreds of 8th graders, their squeeky-sneaker-soles breaking the silence. I tried to escape them in more remote galleries, yet they were everywhere. They giggled in front of every nude sculpture and painting in the museum. That’s when I decided to leave for the Portland Japanese Garden. I knew on a day like that day, rain-sodden, cold, most people wouldn’t be thinking garden. My trip to Portland, which began as a search for advice, then a search for meaning, morphed as it riffed off a tattoo to a search for truth, suddenly craved silence.
I mass-transited as close as I could to Washington Park then walk the rest of the way through the pouring rain up the steep muddy lawns to the Japanese garden. I passed through the bald rose gardens. Last time I was there was in the summer with Michael, the roses in full bloom, wedding parties taking photos, hundreds of people and millions of flowers. Now every rose was pruned to stubs that seemed prisoners to the symmetry that in summer seemed graceful with logic.
I kept moving quickly. There was no need to stop here. The rain was getting harder and colder and I imagined a tea shop in the Japanese garden. A place to sit and warm up.
I was wrong.
Yet when I entered the gates to “the best Japanese garden outside of Japan” something relaxed and awaked in me at the same time. I didn’t need the vivifying effects of tea, I suddenly didn’t crave warmth either. The austerity of being chilled seemed totally appropriate here. I had stepped outside the modern world and into the ancient, abiding one. The garden is barely 50 years old but has the feeling of centuries. Suddenly all the splatter of urbanity on a rainy day was replaced by the crunch of gravel under my boots each step noted in some eternal notebook.
The moss swathed garden is contrived to say the least, over worked, and yet primeval. As I wandered I realized why Japanese poets wrote about the raindrops, They articulated everything from the branches of bare trees to pine needles and even the puddles of the gravel path. I swam in this quiet to extend the water metaphor and to help forget about my aching wet feet. When I arrived in karesansui niwa, the minimalist sand and stone garden, a woman there sneering at her husband said to me, “I wanted to walk across it, but the wouldn’t let me.”
I know she was looking for sympathy but I couldn’t help but support him, “I’m glad he didn’t”. As they wandered away, I wondered what “those sort of people” were doing here on a day like this, obviously reserved for me and the one photographer set up to catch raindrops falling from maple twigs. I finally succumbed to the wet and hunkered down into a machiai, a waiting station in the tea garden. I wasn’t feeling well, hadn’t been feeling well. “I could’ve just as easily stayed at home.” I only sat briefly before a father and son came up the path, the son stomping the puddles to see how big of a splash he could make, the father neither admonishing nor noticing. I envied his youthful vigor, which his father seemed plagued by, I needed it just then for the walk back to the city, . As he slipped under the bamboo shelter with me I said, “Beautiful day”, ironically.
“Yea,” he returned diffusing that irony. I was glad he didn’t want to talk. This was just a bus stop to him, a place out of the rain, that I gave up to him and his son when I realized the time and my need to be at the convention center.
“It was all too quick,” I didn’t want to blame it on myself, my need to fill the day with as many things as possible. It was life’s fault, modernity’s fault. Maybe I could blame it on the internet. Should I blog about that?
I tried to be less rash in my shap-shooting as I left. Stopped, composed, shot. Yet internally time ticked away.
I was back in the parking lot of the rose garden assessing as fast as I was walking, when a tall young man with big blue eyes who just got out of his car. Her greeted me in a lonely voice with an upbeat twist, “Hello.” He would have talked to anyone I supposed so I asked him directions.
“Do you know a short cut back to the city?”
“Are you walking?” he asked incredulously. Had he noticed my muddy shoes? My wet hair? He couldn’t feel my impermeable raincoat soaking through.
“I’m new here; I haven’t done much hiking around here.” I wasn’t looking far a hike just a short cut to the light rail line.
“I have a GPS,” he said with the friendly desperation of the lonely. We ducked under the protection of a nearby kiosk. I wondered why he was up in the rose garden by himself, if he was really so friendly. He slipped the GPS out of his pocket and held it up as proof of knowledge, his magic wand. Now I like magic, even this modern magic, so I stopped to watch him perform his trick. He maneuvered over the icons with his two opposable thumbs, as I wondered how on earth he planned to find a muddy short cut, a foot path out of the park on that thing. John Lennon piped up from my memory: “All the lonely people/where do they all come from?” I flirted with some hopefulness more for his sake than mine, as he fiddled thumb-wise for a minute or two before he said, “I guess I need an address.”
I was antsy to get back to the city, out of the rain and into some warm cafe with both my hands wrapped around a hot ceramic cup, or a paper one if need be. He lingered silently. Was he feeling the pain of defeat? He could have helped someone. That would have felt good. Something flashed through those blue eyes. A big “Not again.” He tried not to show it with a covering smile. He was still warm and dry from his car. I began to envy him his car, his dry jacket, his youth, his sad-sack youth, which once was embedded in me.
I looked out and surveyed the surrounding terrain for a way back down the hill. A way to warmth. The wind kicked the rain under the kiosk making it as useless as the GPS.
“Well, I think I’ll go this way,” I pointed in the direction of the only way I knew out of the park. Maybe it was the quickest way after all.
“I really need to do some more hiking around here,” he told himself out loud.
I didn’t know what to say anymore, “ You really picked a great place to live.” I paused to add both humor and weight, and then continued, “If you can stand the weather.”
“I love the weather,” he said. defiantly. He was already becoming a true North-westerner, knowing that to start complaining about the weather can very well be your undoing. He followed me along for a while like a puppy; I wanted to throw him a frisbee.
As I stepped off in my direction I said “ See you, “ meaning more “ I see you, lonely young man,” than I will see you some time in the future.
“Yea,” he said and our paths parted.
In my rush to the convention center, (I was sure I was late) I never stopped to wrap my hands around a hot cup. The Oregon Convention Center, like convention centers everywhere, offered little comfort, little intimacy, even less than airports. But I ran into people I knew which made it easy to drop the little bit of sad-sack-i-ness I picked up on my way down from the park. I was in, and out of the rain, and snacking on a free buffet provided by the sponsors of this GWA event. Here I was at what I came for, what I paid for and the trip seemed to end. Not in a dead end. But my search for meaning for truth was getting filled with information, with advice. Satisfying enough I let myself believe.
But I couldn’t wait to be back on the train to Seattle and slowly reading Virgin Time for three and a half uninterrupted hours, dear Patricia.
And back to my search for meaning.

P.S. Sorry for this extra long blog. I'm off to Nicaragua with Michael to slow down on an island without cars, computers or telephones, so I won't be posting for nearly a month.
I promise plenty of pretty pictures next time.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Last Wednesday I stood in the middle of winter and took a deep sigh. We’ve made it half way. Ground Hog’s Day. He was kind to us this year promising a quick arrival of spring. By East Coast standards spring is already here. Daffodils and crocuses in bloom, flocks of robins on the lawn. I even heard frogs on that one really warm wet day last week.
When I was depositing my checks at the bank on Imbolc, the beautiful ancient holiday that marks the half way point between winter solstice and spring equinox, the teller asked. “ How are you doing today?”
I know she probably meant nothing by it, but in my heart I was celebrating Imbolc. It put a little bounce in my step that had been missing for weeks. A little spring.
“ I’m doing well, there is some sun in the sky today,” I said.
I guess she was expecting a simple flat “Fine.” Something she didn’t need to respond to. She craned her head to look out the window to see if the sun was really out. She was so deep in the recesses of the room she could only see a corner of the sky, a cloudy corner.
“ It seems cold though; is it going to snow?”
“ I don’t think it will snow.”
“ I like snow,” she confessed.
“I like snow, too.”
“ Where are you from?” She asked. It was strange for a teller to become so inquisitive. But I have to admit I was very inquisitive about where she was from, too. Her exotic unclassifiable beauty made me curious, as did her name, a strange hybrid of Hindu, Arabic and Russian with way too many letters so that it stretched the whole length of her name tag.
“ Wisconsin,” I said as if I had just stepped off the boat, I was feeling a need to appear a bit exotic myself.
“ Oh, that’s in the middle of the country,” she was drawing a comparison. “ I come from the middle of Asia. Kyrgyzstan.” Now that sounds much more exotic than the Midwest, but by her estimation it was the same. “It is very cold and snowy in the winter there,” she said with a nostalgia strange for someone I am guessing is only 20 years old. Then she added with languorous delight, “ And hot in the summer.”
I smiled at her delight in these extremes, “ That’s how it is where I come from, too.”
She felt finally she had an ally. “It is always spring here,” her voice slumped as if in defeat, as if trapped in Purgatory.
“It is always spring here,” I had to agree.
We finished our transaction and wished each other a good day and another snow storm, las if we were wishing each other good luck with a lotto ticket.
I doubt we’ll have more snow, though there is a possibility. Just as it is possible to have a sunny 60° week this time of year. We linger in possibilities forever it seems, yet slowly nudging forward. So I always celebrate Imbolc, or Candlemas or St. Brigid’s if you’re Catholic, because it’s a reminder of the gentle nudge forward toward real spring, flower-bloated, pollen-clogged real spring.
Actually I’m glad we still have half of winter to endure. There are some books I still want to read. Not to mention a green house, toppled like a house of cards by flood waters, that needs to be righted. There is still plenty of mulching and pruning to do. And seed orders to make. It’s going to take some time and ambition.
Luckily it is the Chinese Year of the Rabbit which promises ambition along with good taste and financial luck. But rabbits, it’s hard to feel lucky about rabbits. They are already chewing down the tops of all the tulips in one garden I maintain. Actually it doesn’t matter if it is a dragon year or a dog year, the rabbits, hungry for something new, start chewing the tops off the emerging tulips about now every year. What I wouldn’t do for a snow cover to keep them at bay a little longer. Of course that would only make them more voracious. The worst part is I never see them, they sneak in and out during the shadowy dawn. All the natural irritants I apply won’t keep them away. I encourage the neighbors cat to wander the garden, but he seems rather ineffectual.
One of my colleagues dismissed my complaints, “They’re part of the natural order.”
I was irritable that day so all I could respond was, “There is nothing natural about that garden.” In a way it’s true. Gardens are a contrivances. Tulips hail from far off places like Kyrgyzstan. As I walked away from him I wondered if he killed slugs. There is nothing smugger than a “Green” gardener.
Now I like rabbits, bunnies if you will. I was born on Easter, and was my mother’s “ Little Easter Bunny” for many years. I have an affinity for bunnies. I’m a Chinese dog, they’re my natural allies. But when they start messing with my garden...
Of course this is a lot of bravado. Last summer Michael found a nest of bunnies in our vegetable patch. Neither one of us had the heart to kill them to avoid the ensuing carnage, or is that green-age, when they left the nest and lived off our labors. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for us, they all died before ever leaving the nest. Had the mother been nabbed by coyotes or an owl? We actually contemplated saving the last one and nursing it on. I think Michael had braising in mind.
But I don’t think he could have done it. There was some magical adorability about them making it impossible. Rabbits figure in many cultures as magical beings, tricksters, Bugs Bunny is a very ancient archetype so it seems. They bring luck and fecundity. In the far east they are believed to live on the moon. As burrowers they are said to bring messages from the Underworld. As Thumper, Peter or Roger they are memorable characters of our culture.
But that doesn’t stop the damage they’re doing to my tulips. And reclassifying them so that they’re no longer rodents but lagomorphs, doesn’t make them any less a pest. I’m trying to be expansive. To share the garden with the rabbits. I plant more salvias and alliums as deterrents around things they love like asters and hebes. Who would think they’d eat hebes?
But still I can’t help but let a “damn rabbits” out of my mouth at least once a week. But I’m not alone.
“Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.”