“For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.” – Arthur O’Shaughnessy, ‘Ode’, 1874
Forgive me, readers, if this month’s post is a little maudlin, but now that I’ve stopped writing 2015 on my checks – yes, I still write checks – it’s time to face the fact that 2016 marks the 40th year since my birth. And as I find myself staring down the barrel of this mid-life birthday, I’ve found myself ruminating on age, youth, years passing – on time.
We so often hear people say that they’d never go back in time, that age trumps youth because of the wisdom/confidence/wealth/senility that they didn’t possess way back then. And for the most part, I’m on board with that. But there are a few brazen qualities of youth that I seem to have lost along the way to respectable adulthood, and I’m not going to lie – I miss them.
Narcissism, for a start, is thin on the ground. It’s defined as an “excessive interest or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance,” and by that definition, 21-year-old me was a flagrant, unapologetic narcissist, along with pretty much everyone else I knew. And with good reason! We were glorious, if not a little vain. 39-year-old me doesn’t necessarily want to endlessly navel-gaze; it’s just that I no longer have the time or wherewithal to do so, even if I had the inclination. My children – card-carrying narcissists in their own right – take up inordinate amounts of my mental energy, time and sanity, as does work and bill-paying and the other trappings of adulthood. A little light-hearted admiration of oneself sounds kind of tantalizing.
But look, it didn’t end well for Narcissus in his watery grave; nothing good comes from too many hours spent down the vortex of self-interest. The flowers that grew at the site of his death are known as narcissi, or daffodils, and while we generally view narcissism as an immature, negative trait, there’s no denying that these cheerful, vibrant plants thrill us with the promise of spring and the youth of the year when they shoot out of the ground.
The Greek geographer Pausanias suggested that Narcissus was actually staring at his reflection to console himself after the death of his twin sister, a more complex twist on a seemingly simple story that might just have a clue for us about our own longing for days past. Maybe part of that gazing into the navel is actually a search – for our other halves, or for a part of ourselves we no longer feel connected to.
But it’s not just ardent self-appreciation that’s faded into the background of my days. There’s a capacity for deep thought that seems to have simmered right on down as the years have slipped by. Again, this has more to do with lack of time or inclination than actual intellectual ability – I hope – but the fact of the matter is, being almost 40 means being smack bang in the present. And yet, over the last few weeks, people keep talking to me about the past and the future. The cosmos is sending a message, but I haven’t quite managed to download it. It was suggested to me recently that time and personal development are spiral, that we keep coming back to the same thing but as older, wiser, more experienced versions of ourselves. This is an intriguing take on psychology and growth, akin to Hindu karma. Regardless of our belief systems, are we programmed to revisit what’s unfinished until we’ve seen it through?
I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. – William Faulkner
Part of being mid-life (I can’t deal with ‘middle-aged’) is going to yoga to achieve what you used to get from Marlboros, and at the end part where you get to lie on the floor, they always tell you to ‘be in the now.’ When I was a child, I was hyper-focused on the future and growing up, but now that I actually am a grown up, I’d like to make a case for keeping at least one eye on the past and not forgetting how we got here. Because I don’t think we can take the next step forward without considering all the threads of the path.
Why am I talking about this on a gardening blog? In this poor blog’s past, I made a vow to keep it professional and never veer into territory like ‘Today I had a mochaccino with my sister.’ (For the record, I’ve never had a mochaccino or a sister.) And I realize this is all very ‘Dear Diary,’ but despite the regrettable and clichéd timing of having a mid-life identity crisis in the year I turn 40, I do think this all ties in to the topic of gardens, of landscape, of plants.
One of the biggest problems I see in my work as a landscape designer is the relentless pursuit of the new. This might be exacerbated by the mere fact of practicing in Silicon Valley, but round these here parts there is a glut of tearing down the existing to replace with the new. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a modernist, and I’m so excited about changes I see happening in design and sustainability. But when it comes to THE NEW and plants, age is a quality that money literally can’t buy. Mature shade trees with lichen on their branches; gnarled vines that bear fruit; venerable rose bushes with other-wordly fragrance… these are the players that bring grace to our environments.
Shade and privacy are two of our most basic needs from our gardens, and if you rip out fully formed plants to build a faux Tuscan villa that reaches your property line, you’ll have neither. And no matter what your budget, you can’t buy an 80-foot tree to provide instant privacy. Biology and age take their own sweet time, regardless of bank balances and expectations, and we’re talking years not months.
People are too skittish and helter-skelter to gather moss, and our new stucco houses haven’t yet weathered any storms. But if we injudiciously turn off all our irrigation or cut down the quiet, stately sentinels shading our gardens to make space for the new and the bigger, we’re left with a barren hellscape devoid of shade, patina or elegance. To my mind, the most interesting spaces are those that can incorporate the new and the sleek alongside the old and the patinated.
So, back to me and my mid-life ruminations, because it’s my blog and I get to write about myself if I want to. (Maybe my youthful narcissism isn’t quite dead, after all.) How do we hold onto those parts of ourselves that were once wild and free before middle-aged respectability settled in? Honestly, I have no idea. If you figure it out, please drop me a line and let me know. We’re not lone players anymore, and keeping track of yourself when you’re part of a tangled tapestry is not so easy. But I do think that a crucial aspect of being one’s own self while belonging to others too is to harness your creativity. Make stuff: a playlist, a drawing, a photo, a painting, or who knows … a garden. But do something that doesn’t require any activity from the frontal lobe, which after all, didn’t even finish developing until we were 25. Get lost in that trance-like state of making a thing.
”So the Dark did a simple thing…They showed the maker of the sword his own uncertainty and fear. Fear of having done the wrong thing – fear that having done this one great thing, he would never again be able to accomplish anything of great worth – fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise. All such endless fears, that are the doom of people given the gift of making, and lie always somewhere in their minds.” – Susan Cooper, Silver on the Tree, New York, 1977
And when you do come back to the ‘Time of the Frontal Lobe’ (sounds so much better than “middle age”), ponder this – Sequoiadendron giganteum, the Giant Sequoia and most coolly named plant in the book, has a 3,000-year life span. Our frantic running and racing and musing and campaigning and fretting and catastrophizing and yearning is so minute in the face of real age and time.
‘From her bed Ann Lord … saw herself as someone else might have seen her objectively and felt oddly compassionate and wondered at her thoughts. Had that really been herself? Then she saw a strange thing. A smooth mound of water rose glistening … and Ann Lord felt it rising in her own chest, a little wave curling alongside staying with her, saying “I am here swimming up from this sea beside you I am here I have always been here your true self I was never gone…”’ – Susan Minot, Evening, New York, 1998