Thursday, June 25, 2009

Making Life More Interesting

Every morning from mid-June to mid-July I’m usually in the garden by 6 am with my notebook and camera. One of my creative occupations is the cross-pollinating of hybrid daylilies. I’m one of thousands of backyard hobbyists or business people who raise anywhere from 50 seedlings a year to mind-numbing numbers exceeding twenty thousand. I’m on the low end of the spectrum. I raise about two thousand a year.

There is luck, whimsy, and disciplined thought in this occupation, as there is in writing poetry or moderating a workshop with museum volunteers. The triumphs are all the sweeter when they are unpredicted, when they come seemingly out of nowhere or from the grace of God. A good paragraph feels that way, or a bon mot when trying to convey a vision.

This morning I stood in the garden looking in awe at a dozen or so plants from a single pod of seeds gathered three summers ago. Every plant from this cross grows in a healthy way and has blemish-free foliage. That’s the ticket! Yet the flowers on each plant have their own style of opening in the morning, which surprises me, and their own coloration, which does not surprise me. It does not surprise me that the best flower in this cross (above) is borne on the plant that seems inclined to produce the lowest number of buds, and that the best bud-producers in the cross are producing ho-hum flowers.

If things had gone otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this reflection today; I’d be thinking of how I could conceal the “perfect daylily” long enough to increase it for the massive influx of orders at Daylily Lay, a garden whose name is sung, not spoken.

At lunch today with a delightful PR professional whose last name in Dutch means, “from Lion,” and whose hair is blonde but not leonine, I said “A humanities council helps people make life more interesting.” It’s as simple as that. Those classes we took in Literature or History or Archaeology or Comparative Religion or Baroque Art had a common focus on the production of meaning in human experience. They also had a common result of cultivating a habit of mind appropriate to the subject. In other words, those classes not only opened up a slice of the world to us, they helped us learn to think better, more widely, deeper. We learned to ask more and better questions of the world around us. We learned to appreciate our place on the long highway of human experience.

When I listen to a recording of a Schubert piano piece, I enter another world and live in the ebb and flow of musical ideas that make more sense to me because of some instruction I had a long time ago. A professor taught me how to listen. Have you ever had such a music teacher?

I studied poetry once with a man who taught me how to read, how to notice on many levels, how to savor, how to devour.

Sometimes how a story is laid out is as interesting, or more interesting, than the story itself. Kathy and I were talking the other night about the artistic choices in the screenplay of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We were trying to imagine the F. Scott Fitzgerald story behind the movie. Neither of us had read the story. I placed a bet that the notion of a backwards-running clock was borrowed directly from Fitzgerald’s original. It seemed so “literary,” so unnecessary to the film. Yesterday I found the story online and read the first page or two, finding no mention of a clock. There might be a clock in there, but I don’t intend to read further. It’s low priority now. What was great was that Kathy and I could have that interesting discussion because of how we’d been schooled to think by our teachers.

A humanities council helps local people and institutions carry out activities that make life more interesting – in families, school classrooms, libraries, historic houses, museums, community centers. My colleagues and I are teachers and guides. We facilitate action that constructs a better family, school, library, museum, town, county, country, and world.

The Greek term for daylily is hemerocallis, which I’m told means “beauty for a day.” That gorgeous rose pink daylily may prove to be a phantom of experience. The toothy white edge may be an effect of a prolonged heat wave and high humidity. When the weather cools off, the next flowers may be merely gorgeous pink, and the white edge will be wire-thin or not there at all, like the present flourishing of homo sapiens during a long ice age that appears to be on the wane.

I learned some interesting things about ice in a rented BBC documentary on the earth last weekend. It provided a very long view of earth history, such that the human experience could be seen intimately connected to the history of ice and atmosphere. How strange to feel that the past and future I imagine, as well as the present I live, are all related to something, some energy, much larger than all of us put together. I have certainly felt that way in connection with spiritual ideas, but not before in connection with what might be called natural history.

Oh, how I came to love her very nature!

I feel intimately connected these days with Schubert and Bach, Handel and Verdi. The molecules of my dear late San are intermixed with theirs and with mine, too, and mine are intermixed with Kathy Wofford, who I'll marry on July 19 in a circle of friends near my daylily garden, far from the collapsing glaciers, but not far from the thought of them.

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