Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Famous Southern Garden Writer and a Wild Beat Generation Poet Taught Me Everything I Need To Know About Life & Writing...

Meconopsis betonicifolia, otherwise known as
the Himalayan Blue Poppy...

Dear Friends,

Deep in both the garden and the book I am writing I have come across a couple of things today that are perhaps a rather odd combination but make perfect sense to me. One comes from a famous gardener and another from a Beat Generation writer, and both apply to life as well as art and the garden and just living day to day life. I shall start with Meconopsis betonicifolia, the ever elusive Himalayan Blue Poppy...

Every gardener has a flower that they want badly to grow, but which will not grow well in their climate (zone). Also, blue is the rarest and most precious colored flower in the garden and almost without fail some of the most beautiful blue flowers will only grow in cooler climates than the southern coast of North Carolina where I live when it can be 100+ degrees with a heat index much higher for months during our very long summer. People die in this heat here every year. It is no joke. And, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, I spent years trying to grow that blue poppy even though every garden book and magazine told me that it simply wasn't going to happen here. But I trudged on to no avail for several years and then I had the great good fortune to find the books of Elizabeth Lawrence, considered the garden maven of the south. She has passed on now but her books are classics and will live on into the future. I have them all and cherish them and have learned from her one of the most important lessons about gardening and life that I have ever learned. "If it's miffy, let it go."

Elizabeth wrote that one sentence in one of her books and it turned my whole world on it's ear and I've never been the same since. It has changed my whole life, not just as a gardener but as a woman living day to day in a world that has always been hard for me to understand, a world where I never quite fit, a world in fact where I felt I had failed miserably, that is, until I found Elizabeth Lawrence.

Elizabeth's contention was that people spend so much time and money on things that are NOT going to grow here in the south (true for you as well no matter where you live) that they can run themselves crazy and quit gardening altogether in despair, when in fact there are hundreds, thousands, who knows how many, wonderful plants that we can grow here and create lush, beautiful, amazing gardens. Don't look down on some of the simplest, commonest flowers. En masse they will simply take your breath away. The day that I read that sentence I became a different and better gardener, but more than that, I became a different and far stronger woman. That was twenty years ago and I credit Elizabeth Lawrence's simple little sentence in perhaps saving my life and bringing more light and happiness into it that I ever dreamed possible.

What is miffy? Miffy are those things that simply are not going to grow/happen and which we keep trying and trying to grow/manifest in our lives when they simply weren't meant to be. We are not in the right climate, in the garden and in our lives. Miffy are the things that don't fit, that don't work, and why we cling to them like a limpet on a rock I will never know, but we do. Letting go we can feel like we are free-falling through time and space, but by gosh and by golly we will find with shock and amazement that as soon as we let go of that which didn't work, was never going to work, we finally have the time and the space and the eyes to see whole new possibilities for our lives. It kind of falls in line with that old saw that the definition of crazy is when you keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. I can just hear Elizabeth, in my mind, saying, "Pish tosh, let go and let's get on with it!" And so I have. And I found the most glorious flower, a perennial hibiscus here, that came back for me year after year even after I dug it up and kept it on in a big pot because I had to move and couldn't bear to part with it. Sadly, after a few years the pot just wasn't enough and I hadn't a real garden at that point to plant it in the ground. I felt great grief when "Miss Blue" died. I'd had her for more than a decade, but someday I shall have her again. Her proper name is Hibiscus Syriacus, 'Bluebird." And she looks so much like the Himalayan Blue Poppy it's almost startling. Here's my Miss Blue when she was still alive in a pot on my tiny patio in a little cottagey old townhouse I lived in for several years...

(They are actually bluer than in this photograph.)

And the thing is that in letting go of the poppy and turning to the hibiscus an amazing thing happened at what would turn out to be one of the most difficult times of my life. I had ordered the plant, and before it even came I was stricken with one of the worst cases of Bell's Palsy that any of 3 medical doctors, and the chiropractor/acupuncturists who treated me had ever seen. That was 1995 and I am still paralyzed, though much better than at the outset when I felt like The Phantom Of The Opera. I lost all confidence in myself and to add to all of that it seems that I also had some kind of rare syndrome that creates terrible pain for months. I spent the summer of 1995 with my face packed in ice off and on all day, mostly in bed. But...

In less than 2 weeks after the Bell's had struck it's mighty blow, the little plant arrived. I went out and planted her in a place I could see outside my bedroom window. Still a very small plant within a few short weeks she put out a handful of the most amazing, huge, sky blue flowers I had ever seen. I was awestruck and filled with joy. I named her Miss Blue, and she not only saw me through the entire summer but she spawned a small press I named, "The Blue Hibiscus Press," and all summer long while I was recovering and she was growing and putting out more blooms than I ever dreamed possible, I designed and began writing what would become the first issue of a 100 page quarterly publication that went on for several years. It was called. "The Contemplative Way ~ Slowing Down In A Modern World." It was prescient in that after that summer I turned inward and became reclusive, rarely leaving the house again, and to this day, but not in a bad way, it was the turning from the outer world to the world within, the beginning of my soul work. If beauty was not skin deep I seemed to be the manifestation of that, lopsided, cattywompus and too shy to be photographed ever since. You never see me in any photograph with a big smile. You'd have to tilt your head sideways trying to see me properly!

Today I have a great sense of humor about it and realize that that experience was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it changed my life so deeply in so many ways that one radical change after the next happened until here I am today happy, at peace, doing my work, tending my garden, with pugs and parrots for company, and thanking God every day with great joy for every single thing in my life past, present, and future. Elizabeth Lawrence and Miss Blue saved my life, changed my life, set me on the course that I will travel for the rest of my days, and nearly twenty years later I am finally beginning to bloom like those early blossoms Miss Blue put forth, and it is so delightful sometimes I just outright squeal with joy, and don't care a hoot if it is a tad unseemly for a near 58 year old lopsided and cattywompus woman!

So remember, however it might pertain to something in your life, if it's miffy, let it go, and get on with it. I promise, you'll be glad you did.

Next comes the list of lessons that were never meant to see the light of day and are now legendary. In 1958 the somewhat infamous Beat generation writer, Jack Kerouac, well known for the counterculture combination of jazz and writing and a whole lot more, and author of "On The Road," and many other books still in the Beat cannon today, wrote a personal letter to a good friend, Don Allen. In it he had composed, in his jazz improv beat style, a "List of Essentials For Modern Prose." You must, in a way, suspend everything you know about spelling, punctuation and grammar, don't think too hard, and just let his words seep into your pores. It may be some years before some of it will make sense to you, some of it never will, but it has utterly saved me on more than one occasion in my writing and my life and, as in finding Lawrence, I have never been the same since. I trust that at least one (or more) things on this list will be exactly what you needed to hear, if you are indeed here reading this, and so I share with you this list that has stood me in great stead for decades as a writer, and which I have leaned into many times in life to see me through a hard time, to regain my sense of self, and move forward once more. And so, the list...

Belief & Technique For Modern Prose
by Jack Kerouac

List of Essentials

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy    
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening    
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house    
  4. Be in love with yr life    
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form    
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind    
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow    
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind    
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual    
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is    
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest    
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you  
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition    
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time    
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog    
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye    
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself    
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea    
  19. Accept loss forever    
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life    
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind    
  22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better    
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning    
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge    
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it    
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form    
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness    
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better    
  29. You're a Genius all the time    
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
I could say more, but there is no need. What I can tell you is that if you let go what's miffy, and follow as many of those prose essentials as you can, you will be a better gardener, a better writer, and a happier, more relaxed, joyful person than you might ever, otherwise, have been. It has been so for me, and so I pass it along to you, in hopes that you may find some answers that you seek, understand yourself and the world around you a little bit better, and clear the road of all of the clutter before you so you can find your way to your dreams. It is possible. I'm doing it, and if I can you can and so can anybody else.
Godspeed, and Hallelujah!


Crystal said...

Such an inspiration. Thank you Maitri. God bless you.

The humble MOSTress of GGFarm said...

I am too busy nodding my head when I read your entries to think there is anything more to add. Really enjoy your posts and hope you will not be discouraged by lack of comments in response; comments aren't a reliable indicator of appreciative readers. We are out here, keep talking!

Victoria SkyDancer said...

Ha. Nearly a month has passed between your writing of this and my reading of it, but for me it's OH so timely! I am coming to see the Miffy in my life and I'm letting it GO! :-)
(and I shall sit with the words of Kerouac and see what they stir up within...)
Blessings, as always, to you!
Victoria oxo

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