Life and Death (and Life) in the the Garden

The creation myth recorded in the book of Genesis is perhaps the most well-known ancient story of human origins.  By “story of our origin” I mean exactly that.  It is not science, it is a story.  It is a genuine and compelling myth, and many cultures have them.  I like this framing of myth from Wikipedia:

…….academic use of the term generally does not pass judgment on truth or falsity.  In the study of folklore, a myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form.  Many scholars in other fields use the term “myth” in somewhat different ways.  In a very broad sense, the word can refer to any traditional story.

One of the reasons I adore mythology is that it tends to illustrate more deeply Truth (capital T) than does dry fact.  For example, the layering of conflict, hubris, love, temptation, foolishness, desire and loss in the Greek myth of Icarus is difficult to match.  By using a factually “untrue” story, the Greeks say more about the human condition in a few words than most others have in volumes.

Our weeping mulberry tree in November

The garden presents itself in special ways this time of year.  There is so much to learn and appreciate year ’round, but something about the autumn season seems to lend itself especially well to talking about some of the most difficult topics.  My parenting philosophy is to use both myth and nature to teach my daughter as early as possible about life.  Decline and death are difficult topics for many when it comes to talking with young children, but I find that the more I expose my child to the garden, the more naturally and comfortably she seems to absorb the conversations.

All year long, we talk about fertility, and seeds, and conditions for life.  We talk about living things thriving where they get what they need, and withering where they do not.  We discuss intervention and non-intervention in the food chain (not easy, but good).  We respect the passing of worms, and bugs, and birds.  We thank the world for sharing its bounty with us, and we remind ourselves of our reciprocal role in respecting the systems around us.

The garden is a place of joy, and loss, and natural comings and goings.  It is, in fact, the perfect place.  All the more understandable that getting kicked out was the ultimate punishment for Adam and Eve……….and all the more True that our restoration there is a natural culmination to a journey lived outside. 

Welcome, winter.  Spring will surely be here soon.

Image credit: Elizabeth Gaucher

How D’Ya Like Them Apples? IQ and Education

Someone asked me last week if I think the bell curve of intelligence quotient scores is even across political parties and political positions.  Without hesitation I said yes.  I don’t see any reasonable explanation for why IQ scores would necessary correlate to a person’s political opinions.  I do think, though, that the likelihood that our nation can even out with some moderate positioning on a range of issues is hampered by our struggles with educational attainment rates and public education dynamics in general.

How can we ever expect to communicate with each other to achieve more balanced and reasoned understanding when test scores and drop out rates indicate we are failing to establish even basic language skills?  And if we never leave the communities where we grew up to learn in an environment with a diverse representation of people from around the country and even the world, how can we develop appreciation for diversity and what people different from ourselves have to teach us?

In the midst of my pondering, I turned to Will.  Will always helps me figure things out.

Good Will Hunting is a favorite film in our house.  We ping back to it often, from personal reasons to conceptual storytelling to a love of Robin Williams in dramatic roles.  A quote that gets a lot of play on a regular basis is, “How d’ya like them apples?”

Photo credit: E. Gaucher

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall Will (Matt Damon) is trying to get the attention and admiration of Sklyar (Minnie Driver) in a bar frequented by Harvard University students.  An arrogant pretty-boy tries to embarrass him by asking him questions about books he’s sure Will has never heard of, let alone read.  Much to his dismay, Will knows the books.  Very well.  Well enough to end up humiliating the other guy, and well enough to get Sklyar’s phone number on a cocktail napkin before she leaves.  Outside the bar, Will knocks on the glass to get stuck-up’s attention.  “Do you like apples?” Will asks.  “What?”  the guy insides replies.  “I said, do you like apples?”  The guy shrugs and nods, confused.  Will slams the napkin with the newly inked phone number up on the glass and into his face.  “Well, I got her number.  How d’ya like them apples?”

The scene is a classic illustration of the disconnect between education and intelligence.  The entire movie pivots around questions of what it means to know anything.  In the apples scene, Will comes out on top.  He has exposed himself to great works of art, and he has a photographic memory that allows him to regurgitate on cue lengthy analyses of everything from sculpture to political theory.  What’s brewing underneath his cocky persona, however, is anything but educated.  We find out later in the story that he has, for good reasons, completely isolated himself from real life experience.  He lives in his head with the thoughts and lives of others running roughshod over his courage to engage life on his own terms, and to have a true education.

Sean (Robin Williams) nails him on it with this memorable monologue:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny… on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations. Him and the pope. Sexual orientation. The whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seeing that. If I ask you about women, you’ll probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites…… But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman… and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap… and watched him gasp his last breath lookin’ to you for help. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. I look at you. I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that.

Will is a smart kid.  Smarter than smart.  But he is lashing out with information as a weapon rather than being willing to let other people teach him anything, and rather than allowing himself to be vulnerable to the many possibilities that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does about what life is really about.

Intelligence can be a wonderful thing, and fortunately we know now that there is more than one way to measure it.  Intelligence of any kind, however, requires the humility and depth that only participating in a shared environment of respect for real learning can deliver.  It starts in school, but it hardly ends there.

Actually, if you do it right, it never ends. And that mindset is the one that has the unique power to moderate the sound and fury of today’s political climate, regardless of what else a person believes.

Buddha v. Papa Bear

My daughter holding, literally, The Teachings of the Buddha at Goat Rope Farm.

Now and again, I read something that just cuts to the chase so well it almost defies analysis or explanation.  But it sure deserves sharing…….  

After a friend cryptically posted a lament that she could not protect her children from heartache and negativity, some well-meaning soul suggested that the Teachings of the Buddha could ease her mind.  Buddha taught that on the path to enlightenment, one inevitably encounters many trials and tribulations, but it is the manner in which one responds to those trials that leads to a higher plane and (presumably) a more enriched life.  

Great perspective.  Excellent life lesson.  Not bad advice.  Except for one little thing.  Enter, Papa Bear.  

Papa Bear proceeded to outline what had actually occurred.  A six-year-old little girl was subjected to demands to do 50 push ups by an older girl/authority figure outside of the observation of her parents.  I don’t have more details, but having a little one myself, I don’t need them.  Papa Bear’s retort to the well-meaning friend?  “Buddha can suck it.”  

Please understand I mean no disrespect to the Buddha or any other revered teacher or religious entity.  But it does have a wonderful quality when people fiercely protect their loved ones to the tune of everyone else — even deities and near such — can, well……what he said.

Where We Are, revisited

Mid Life. Crisis?

Written originally a year ago, this post seemed worth revisiting after a weekend away with old friends……..

Lots of my peers are wrestling with relocating their lives. There is frequent talk of “making a change,” and often this manifests itself in a laundry list of other places they and their families could live.

Looking for better schools for children; more variety in dining; more diversity in neighborhood; a change in commute; a change in climate; a new house; a more challenging job. The list is familiar and endless.

Pawing the ground at middle age is hardly new territory. The stereotype of the midlife crisis is not positive to say the least; but there is a strange degree of beauty in the moment. I like to believe that change is always available, that what we lose little by little is the will to make it. Midlife wrestling with where we are and where we want to go has an air of Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Where it can go wrong is usually two-fold. One, we repress our real feelings and needs for so long that when our conscience can’t manage anymore the backlash is a destructive taking of all our unmet needs we’ve left untended for years. Two, there is a lack of clarity about what it is that is really unsatisfactory.

Is it REALLY that we don’t have enough of this, that, or the other thing in the place where we are, physically? Or is it that we don’t have enough in other places where we are, like our relationships or our careers?  Here’s wishing all of us a good place to be today.

Summoning Your Life

David Brooks writes this week in his op-ed The Summoned Self:

Life isn’t a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored. A 24-year-old can’t sit down and define the purpose of life in the manner of a school exercise because she is not yet deep enough into the landscape to know herself or her purpose. That young person — or any person — can’t see into the future to know what wars, loves, diseases and chances may loom. She may know concepts, like parenthood or old age, but she doesn’t really understand their meanings until she is engaged in them.

The Burt's Bees Business Model - look anything like your life?

People who think this way are very skeptical of using a business model to manage their lives, as if life is a project to be mapped out and boxes to be checked off.  In fairness, Brooks allows that there is more than one valid and meaningful way to manage one’s life.  But seeing the different perspectives in black and white, there was no question in my mind I am living a “summoned life” and have been for many years.

I have tremendous admiration for people who have earned their MBA degrees.  Some of my best friends have achieved this, and I even considered going for it myself once.  It’s a very practical degree and can make one quite wealthy if you know what to do with it.  The trouble is, I’ve seen too many people confuse their degree with their lives.  I seriously had one friend drawing diagrams of his relationship with his wife and calculating how to get the highest ROI (return on investment) out of their marriage.  This was shortly after attaining an MBA from one of the most prestigious business schools in the country.  And you would be correct: They are no longer married.  Business model FAIL#.

There are parts of life that respond well to planning.  And there are parts that don’t.  If you saw George Clooney in Up in the Air, you know what a brilliant job his character’s young protege Natalie Keener does of illustrating to a T the bloody collide of the Well-Planned Life with things she can’t control.  George has a couple of crashes himself. 

There is a balance to be had between trying to uber-manage our lives and being open to what unfolds, as it unfolds.  Sometimes I think it doesn’t matter very much which you prefer, it just is what it is.

Life’s Own Rules

My friend Rick is an avid gardener.  As I drove past his house on the East End of Charleston a few years ago he called me to the yard and ran about with a spade asking, “Do you want this?  What about some of this?  These are great….oh, and these!”

I had just moved into a new house with a rather “Lowe’s Home Improvement Center” feel to the landscape.  I was chomping at the bit to bring heirloom perennials, herbs, ornamental specimen trees and pass-along plants to the space — the spontaneous encounter with Rick was perfect.

Around 5 years in the ground, this little plant blooms for the first time.

So this little guy has hung in there for 5 years, but has never done much more than poke out of the earth in the spring to say hello.  I had no idea it even could flower……and yet here we go.  Delicate, nearly hair-width stalks with tiny yellow buds.  Lovely.

The garden is a reminder of all things life.  You never know to what potential the roots reach, what genetic material is invisible to your eyes, and what the ideal conditions and time will produce.