Half-puzzled that I could not lift my head;
And then I knew somehow that I was lying
Among the other dead".--Wilfrid Wilson Gibson
One of my ten thousand pet theories is that the terrarium is a wonderful metaphor for the problem of living. Tonight I browsed Rex Mabe's "Gardening with Terrariums and Sand Sculpture", a little, appropriately green chapbook about little bottle habitats.
I like the chapter titled "Single Plant Terrarium" because it lavishes the page with simple phrases such as "A single plant terrarium is simply a terrarium with one plant enjoying the space of the container".
Have you ever been to a lecture on the raising of bonsai? I have, and found it fascinating. Of course, there was the aeshetic discussion about how one should imagine the bonsai in some huge, distant landscape, as if on a mountain. The speaker charmingly expressed brief glimpses of the different schools of bonsai--not enough to "learn anything" in any big sense, but enough to hint that wheels revolved within wheels which revolved within wheels.
But what caught my eye and ear was the endless grooming and pinching that goes into making a bonsai. I have predictably mixed feelings about the notion of shrinking down a tree through forcing its growth, although, in the main, I suppose it is one more way to pursue the mystery of life.
I wonder, sometimes, about the pinching and grooming and snipping that marks so much of living. In an earlier generation or two, just prior to my generation, folks supposed that this would come to an end when a new age dawned and global insight suddenly manifested. Another, competing vision posits that we stand at any moment on the brink of a redefinition of everything we know, a time when good will triumph over evil with trumpet blasts not heard since Jericho. When is the tree allowed to grow, and when does the wiring limit the plant?
I do not propose this evening to solve the problems of self-represssion versus unrestrained self-pursuit, if for no other reason than that I am bored of writing the words self and selfless. I'll skip, also, the metaphor "dead man walking" and that timeless chestnut "new lease on life".
I never played much at marbles when I was a kid. I had them, as most kids do. I love that a dollar at the local dollar store will often still buy a nice array of them. Kids in movies traded them, and gambled them in games of skill, and generally had a marble-ous time with them. I do not remember doing any of those things with them. I remember rolling them, and sometimes shooting one sporadically, and also lining goldfish bowls with them.
I like that expression "take the marbles and go home". It's got a pugnacious ring, as if the kid who "has" will pick up the marbles at hand and end the game.
I am not much for pugnacity, although not all might agree with that assessment.
Something can be said, though, for the idea of knowing when the marbles matter more than the game at hand.
I remember in 10th grade, when I ceased to play high school football. Let's first be clear that this was no great punishment for the football team. Although I had won a letter jacket in ninth grade, and even started a few games at center, I was a hopeless football player. I played center, and hiked the ball well. But I had very little skill as a blocker, and, until I had a growth spurt a bit later, no real dynamic speed.
By tenth grade, I realized that I had no interest in the world of locker-rooms and
belittling "guy-talk" and the loss of my afternoon free time. I credit four years of kid football with great warm-up exercises which served the purpose of teaching me agility, and I also credit football with teaching me, through an ingenious sprinting device called the "windsprint", that I had no interest in whatsoever in running all day long for the rest of my life.
As an aside, the part I hated about playing football was not so much hitting or getting hit, although I was not particularly good at either of those. The part I hated was tackling that dummy on a wire. I could never get that dummy down. I feel in some ways I spend my whole life dealing with untackled dummies. The things that don't breathe and block back sometimes pose more challenges than the things you can easily get your arms around.
When I decided to quit playing football, I faced immense peer pressure. The Gurdon Go-Devils were short of players that year, with the entire varsity squad down to just twenty four players. I had grown a bit, so that it was clear I could be a more imposing player. People actually sought me out, a little, to ask if I were playing. I politely but steadfastly said "no".
It worked out for the best. I used my free time during the Summer and after school for important quests on bicycles and for being my own individual self, rather than a mediocre fit in someone else's mold. I had taken the marbles of my own way of doing things, and gone home from football. I love the sport still, and played it on the sandlots well into my twenties. The day had faded when I needed to be on anyone's football team.
It's obvious that nobody really lives in a terrarium. The interconnections and links among people are like those giant root systems for plants that stretch for eternity. I read a Golden Book for children on Saturday which was a simple excerpt from Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us". I was struck by the way the plankton and the other small organisms build the foundation for a kind of animal civilization in the ocean--not "civilization" in the sense of intelligence, but "civilization" in the sense of social interaction.
The interdependencies of just living day to day yield themselves to similar metaphors. Those interdependencies require no escape, and sometimes require conscious effort to create. I think sometimes that finding relationships built neither on money nor power, nor merely on pleasure, nor merely on advantage, can sometimes be just relaxing into the mass of people who also hunt such things.
The key challenge, I think, is to know when to quit playing football. I know a few hardy souls who thought that the way to "get out of jail free" was to drop out of life altogether. I think of my friends and acquaintances whose "way out" was to
lose hope--such as Danny from high school, hanging himself in a jail cell, dismayed at finding himself there, drunk again. It's a critical path--to quit "football" and not to quit school altogether. I don't mean literally one must quit football, or that literally one can't quit school. I mean instead a way to find the way to grasp life, and not to suffer from it. I mean a way to plant oneself in a single plant terrarium with the right amount of moisture and the right amount of sun.
Lately I think about seeking out the authentic. Sometimes the authentic requires one to put aside one's vanities and prejudices. Sometimes it requires one not to flinch from the mainstream or old-fashioned. Sometimes one just reaches out and
grasps the thing that seems ungrasped. Sometimes the authentic is in a dark hallway, and you reach into the places you can't see.
It's so easy to snip here, and snip there, and then one is a stunted tree. In the right setting, a bonsai is a wonderful thing to be. But one should be a bonsai on purpose, and not by misdirection. So many trees could grown larger, with only a little more soil, a litle more water, and a little less snipping.
Perhaps that's the "golden mean" I can never quite grasp. Don't snip off all the buds. Don't let the branches grow into the wires.
I am a person who does a fair bit in life, but only one tenth as much as many other people I know. I sometimes worry that I am a slow-growing succulent plant, rather than one of those radiant grasses that overwhelms the landscape (and flowers frighteningly vividly, as well).
Yet the game is not about ribbons or money or personal appeal. The game is all about working through the soil, planting something that matters. If there's time for a little sand sculpture, what could be better?
I want to pick up some kind of hoe, and plant something marigold-ish. It may be gone by October, but it'll bloom a bit, and grow a bit, and that's okay. Even if it proves that my grand gardener metaphor fails, perhaps instead I can be an earthworm, plowing ground, leaving castings, making things a bit more able to grow than they were before I passed.