Wednesday, November 02, 2011
DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES AND GARDENS
“Dysfunctional family” is an epithet often thrown around nowadays, masquerading as a diagnosis. The problem: it’s meaningless because all families are dysfunctional in one way or another. A diagnosis without a difference, it’s like accusing someone of breathing.
We perceive our experiences through the prism of our personal metaphors. Some think that human relationships are like a machine in which everything works efficiently without intimacy, the parts being interchangeable. Others think of them as if they were cupboards or a parts department, pigeon-holing members as though they were objects unrelated to one another. Both metaphors in terms of family relationships lead to alienation because there are no intimate connections.
More functional metaphors for a family are an organism or a fabric in which the members are involved with one another or closely woven. As John Dunne wrote in Meditation XVII, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Dysfunctional families pretty much parallel our gardens. When we first moved to Flagstaff 8 years ago, one of the first things I did was to plant a rhododendron and several forsythias largely because I was still enthralled with the beauty of Princeton in the spring, a halcyon experience now 65 years old. A hymn reads, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.” I’d forgotten that.
I enjoyed Latin in school, but not my sons. A year of frustrations and anger was misspent enforcing Latin. I thought they would like what I liked and become what I had in mind. A folly it is to impose our expectations on others contrary to their interests, abilities, and inclinations. Happily, they’ve forgiven me. When they were in their early twenties, I took them out to dinner with my daughter and asked for their forgiveness for all the ill-tempered and stupid things I had done. I would recommend such an event for every parent.
So it is with gardens. Many wonderful plants don’t do well in Flagstaff, but many do. I kept that rhododendron alive for four years as it withered year after year. The forsythia, Shasta daises, blanket flowers, penstemon, and Arizona fescue have prospered beyond my expectations. One sure sign of dysfunction, nay, insanity, is to keep repeating a failure expecting a success. In short, what works are native and adaptive plants.
Our sense of beauty needs to change when we move from one place to another. I was raised in California with orange trees, Meyer lemons, camellias, bougainvillea, avocados, and azaleas. I miss them, but that should not blind me to the beauty of the ponderosa pines, Gambel oaks, sheep fescue, and quaking aspen.
When I moved to Tucson years ago after 8 years in the East and Middle West, I first thought the desert was a waste. After a year, I began to see its beauty, and when I left, I missed its beauty. I still smell creosote bush when it rains. So it is with the High Country. No azaleas, but, ah, the wildflowers.
Also, that maple I planted at the same time as the rhododendron and the forsythias now shades a once beautiful flower bed. The flowers are now pitiful, pathetic, and dysfunctional. I have to transplant them and put in what the arborists call “understory” plants. Gardens evolve just as do families. Those reluctant Latinists are now worthwhile middle-aged men planning their retirements. My daughter now does the Thanksgiving dinner.
Since we’re all dysfunctional, it’s important to look at the whole of the garden and family. Sometimes plants don’t prosper no matter how much care they’re given. No point in blaming the plant or Flagstaff. The big dysfunction is in not accepting one’s dysfunction. As Oliver Cromwell told the Westminster Parliament in 1650, “I beseech you, in the blood of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” The Westminster Parliament didn’t. We should.
Families bond much like a soldier’s “band of brothers” where forgiveness, tolerance, and trust are the sine qua non of survival and prevalence. So, too, is a garden. Not every member is the same. Not only that, they change with time. Gardens, like our families, are organisms constantly evolving into new shapes and forms. So “faith, hope, love abide.” Gardening is an act of all three.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011
Dana Prom Smith edits GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article appeared on 11/5/2011. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.