One summer week during the mid 1990s I and six other women from the United States drank wine at Paris sidewalk cafes and visited the city’s art museums. The impressionist and post-impressionist museums were my favorite. Most of the paintings were familiar but I had seen them only as reproductions. They evoked the art books my mother kept on the coffee table when I was a child and a textbook I used in a college art appreciation class. It was strange that these paintings should evoke memories from my personal life. I wondered if that was an unsophisticated response. It was not unlike the feeling I had when I wandered through Westminster Abbey and saw tombs of literary figures I had studied in college. I was overwhelmed with emotion. But the gardens at Giverny, Monet’s home, were a different quality of experience, a direct connection to God, who surely must be first about beauty and then about love.
Monet was a gardener before he was a painter. At Giverny fields of iris stretch as far as the eye can see. To have lived that life, at that farmhouse, surrounded by that beauty.
Japanese prints from the 1800s inside the house were like some my uncle brought back from Japan in the 1950s. They hang today in my foyer. Iris blooms in my garden, too, along with daffodil, Lenten rose, astilbe, azalea, rhododendron, columbine, dogwood, flowering plum, black-eyed Susan, Russian sage, daisy, mum, bleeding heart and cyclamen. My garden is beginning to take shape as a buffer against the outside world, an oasis where I dream of God and perfection. It will never be Monet-like, but it inspires me.
When gardening I revel in the tangible — the buzz of the bees, the wind and sun on my face, the dirt beneath my fingers. I get lost the same way I was lost at Giverny. Then I come inside and write, and my writing is better for it.
We model what we love. In graduate school my favorite courses were those in the philosophy of aesthetics. I think it was Kant who said we cherish images that remind us of how our mind works. But there is a difference between the pleasure that comes from the direct experience of nature and the pleasure that comes from entertaining ideas, no matter how beautiful they are. Sometimes I wish I had chosen a different medium than words to work in. They are just symbols and it is easy to use them badly.
Still, my garden takes shape. This year I’ve noticed a correlation between the promise of beautiful flowers outside and serviceable, if not beautiful, prose inside. The winter is a time of waiting, spring is for hope and beginning blooms and summer is for a full flowering.