What does it matter if we know, or tell, our personal stories?
I love getting plants in such ways, rather than from a nursery. And getting starts or divisions or cuttings from friends is even better.
I hadn't thought about this phenomenon --- of how one's thoughts almost automatically go to the people and stories associated with a particular plant as one weeds, divides, admires, or harvests from it --- until I started that post. But now that I do think about it, well, it's clear to me that gardening and narrative are inextricable.
Too, we all participate in both daily, whether we know it consciously or not. Run into an acquaintance
you haven't seen in awhile; ask "So what are you up to these days?" In listening to the response, you're hearing narrative, which, to a greater or lesser extent, becomes part of your narrative as well. Bite into a bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich (vegetarians, feel free to substitute smoked tempeh for the bacon) and you participate in gardening, albeit often someone else's . (Picture: just an excuse to add some graphics and show off some of last year's abundant garden... me at one of our pole-bean teepees, taken in the fall, by David Koff).
Gardening and narrative connect us: to our home on the earth, and to each other. In different ways, they tell us who tell us who, what and where we are; and they always tell us, whether we're paying attention or not.
The economist Eliot Janeway was an
ardent amateur gardener; he and his wife, the feminist and writer Elizabeth Janeway
(pictured) were both friends of my parents. I vividly remember a visit to their large country home and estate-like garden. I was still pretty young, maybe 12; young enough to still be willing, occasionally, to go places with my folks (I'd always bring a book, and would wonder off to read if things got boring). On this particular day, Eliot had just finished dividing the astilbe, one of the few reliable flowering
perennial plants for shady gardens. At the end of our visit, he gave my mother, writer-editor Charlotte Zolotow , also a devoted gardener, some divisions for her much smaller back-yard
garden. She took them home and planted them.
The astilbe Eliot Janeway gave her eventually became overreaching in Charlotte's garden; after a few years, she was dividing it herself. By my twenties, I was also gardening, and would often work with my mother in her garden when I visited. On one such occasion, my mother was dividing the Janeway astilbe again, and she gave me some of the divisions to bring home. By this time Eliot was long dead. I was maybe 25 or 26 by then, and I hand-carried the astilbe home back to Arkansas, where I then lived, on the plane, the plant's roots wrapped in a damp paper towel and a sheet of plastic wrap. Just as I now think of the Putney Library's unknown friend who unwittingly added the pulmonaria to my garden when it blooms each spring, so I used to think of the Janeways whenever I weeded the Arkansas garden into which I transplanted that astilbe.
That was was the garden at our inn, Dairy Hollow House, R.I.P. (1979-1998), the same garden in which my late father's ashes now reside. How many years did I anticipate the astilbe's flowering, its fluffy, feathery plumes of pale pink and white, which I'd use in the arrangements I'd make for each room's incoming guests? (This astilbe variety looks similar to one of the two Eliot Janeway gave the Zolotow-Dragonwagon clan). Presumably, that astilbe still blooms in that garden, another little piece of literary history connected with that property, unknown by anyone except me (despite the place the surrounds that garden's current use as a refuge for writers), until my mentioning it here. As is that larger piece I just mentioned: that my late father, Maurice Zolotow, also a writer, wanted his ashes put in that same garden. And so they were, and are. According to the promise he and my mother made each other when he was still alive, and she was still cogent, her ashes will eventually join his, a promise I will keep. (It's also a hilarious story, especially the agreed-upon marker to be, but will have to wait for another time to be told: I'm on a different track now, and am trying to resist my old friend, digression.)
What does it matter if we know, or tell, our personal stories?
Because our stories connect us to others, in ways we may never know, but which may have meaning to them, just as the stories of others sometimes have meaning to us. And meaning is a life-shaper.
This is true for all of us: we never know who we touch, and
how, by our stories. We just never know. But maybe it's especially true for writers who are fortunate enough to have their work published and read widely or even semi-widely. We just never know. (Or almost never. When I get an e-mail from a stranger who's been making one of my recipes for years and tells me about how it's now become a
Christmas morning family tradition, or who from a teenager who read one of my YA novels and tells me it helped her feel less alone, I am always reminded of this. Or when I get such mail about my mother's work, how, say, her title Big Sister and Little Sister helped the writer of the e-mail when she herself was a little girl growing up with a bossy big sister, and then, as a mother, she read it to her own two girls, and now she's looking forward to reading it to her two granddaughters, who are now ages 1 and 3, and she just wanted to let Charlotte know how much the book has meant to her... I am even more reminded of this). (Picture, taken by David in September 2007, the big sister, Dorothy, in blue, and the little sister, Charlotte, in cream, now both very old ladies... the sisters that inspired Charlotte's writing of this book.).
As I said in the subtitle to this blog, I think we're all part of the narrative life tells itself about itself.
Someday, will someone connected with the non-profit institution, which I co-founded, and that now occupies the physical terrain Ned and I and my whole family put so much into, ever want to know about such things as Eliot Janeway's astilbe and my father's ashes, things that to my mind and heart are so connected with the narrative DNA of that place, and, I believe, add to and strengthen it?
Maybe, maybe not. As my late father himself used to say, "God sees the truth, but waits." So, who knows? It will happen, or it won't; the artifact of the astilbe itself, and the ashes, and perhaps something of the vibe, will remain there, at least.
And here, at least, I have told that story.
What does it matter if we know, or tell, our personal stories?
Because, paradoxically, our personal stories are ultimately not a matter of personalities, but of something that transcends personality: collective identity, an ever-developing gumbo of history, truth, perspective, prejudice, and, again, narrative.
Identity: Who we are. Do we identify ourselves as the member of a particular
family, community, church, organization, survivor (of Katrina,
a bad divorce, two tours of duty in Iraq)? Do we see ourselves as
triumphant or victimized, active or passive, clear or confused, a
Yankee, a Southerner, a Sunni, a Shiite, a Pakistani, a British citizen of Pakistani
descent, wealthy, just getting by, successful, a failure? A parent, a child, a student? Usually, identity is a mix of
countless such factors (some contradictory). But most of us tend to pick to or three or four as our
major themes. This becomes how we tell, and understand, our story; this becomes what we think our life is.
As we age, we tend to get more affixed to our story and our identity. On the plus side, this is stabilizing; on the minus, getting rigid limits further growth and understanding. But occasionally, if we not only age but ripen and mature (which is a matter of conscious choice: as the saying goes, "You can't stay young forever, but you can always remain immature") , we sometimes wise up enough to let the story to which we are so attached, be undermined. We reconsider. We may have, not just "Aha!" moments, but "Oh, shit," moments, as we look at what we've done and what that makes us.
But with a little luck and persistence and heart, with the courage to confront ourselves both ruthlessly and with forgiveness, with what Tara Brach calls "radical acceptance" (a concept I've mentioned before here) we can end up with several version of "our" story.
And not just that, something larger: "the" story.
"The" story is always both individual and collective. "The" story is dynamic, ever-changing, always altering as time, distance, wisdom, experience, scholarship, a changing cast of characters, and research bring new facts and perspectives to light. "The" story may make us look better or worse, more or less significant than we look in our own version. But ultimately, and naturally, "the" story is much bigger than we are. For example, the book 1491: New revelations Before Columbus completely and dramatically retells the story of America's first inhabitants (such as this chief painted by British watercolorist John White in 1585. The early Europeans, it turns out, though in some ways appalled by the Indians, were amazed by their physical health and beauty; the Native Americans, of course, had never had small-pox, ate incredibly healthfully and lived with much physical activity; naturally they were far taller and handsomer than the puny British).
I love this book, by the way. Charles C. Mann, who wrote it, is brilliant but wholly unshow-offy, and, that rarity, a historian whose writing is compelling, funny, thoughtful, and all-around delightful. "In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archeology," trumpets the jacket copy of the book, truthfully, I'll add, " Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492."
Exactly. Stories, especially those that rethink "the" story, radically alter us.
The word "radical" is based on the prefix rad, or root. By having access to the stories that happened before us yet affect us, the stronger and deeper, more radical, are our roots and rootlets. And, I think, the greater our chances for wisdom and dimensionality. We grow spacious enough to embrace contradiction and paradox; to accept that we all, individually, have a metaphorical 1491.... something about ourselves and our culture we take as a given in one way yet to to which we're blind, because we're too close to see it. I
think this is true whether the "we" is an individual, an organization,
a community, a town, an institution, a nation.
What allows "the" story to unfold? Deep inner and outer inquiry, new information, time. And radical altering, liberating and astonishing though it is, doesn't happen for everyone; certainly it is possible in many cases to accept our own prejudices and versions as reality, not simply one story out of many.
But to be so wedded to our blind spots that we insist that we what we are seeing and saying is the whole truth, is to move through life as tourists, on the surface.
When we dare to ask the sometimes impertinent or threatening questions, of ourselves and others, when we seek a story, "the" story, then we move through our lives as travelers.
“For the person who follows with trust and forgiveness what occurs to him or her, the world remains always ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of actuality and the flexibility of a dream. Be receptive and careless of failure. ”
--- William Stafford (poet)
The difference between no story/false or partial story and provisionally true story is the difference between the kind of "following" Stafford speaks of or wandering aimlessly. It's the difference between superficiality and depth; between, basically, wasting (or "killing") time on earth, versus using time, reveling in it, finding meaning and mystery in it.
And then passing that meaning on.
All without knowing how the story comes out, or if our meaning means anything to anyone else.
Gardening (as well as cooking, preparing the foods that come from our gardens or someone else's), and narrative --- they both ground us. Gardening literally, stories metaphorically. How else do we contend with the huge mystery of knowing our home is in these fragile and temporary vessels called our bodies; of residing on and nourishing ourselves from the earth, from which we know we will be exiled?
Humankind has always needed to feed its twin hungers.
Thus, we garden, and tell our stories.