Sunday, March 1, 2009

"What (We Do) For Love"

This is a flawed reference, since "A Chorus Line" is not among my favorite musicals; this could stem from my having spent several months chained to a piano beneath a stage on which a dozen or so dancers whose singing was marginal, at best, (it was a local dinner theater production) whined about not being able to find dancers on Broadway. Never mind that most of us work in more mundane jobs all the time to support our families, our homes, and, yes, our hobbies. All the same, I've been thinking a lot lately about how to arrive at a balance between making a living and "following my bliss". This is further complicated by the fact that some of us have too damned many "blisses", and only 24 hours in a day; still, in my life (another musical theater reference - wait for it...) I've recently been impressed by some excellent role models who manage to find just that balance.

My friend Rob., for instance, has always wanted to be a writer, and has always been one - he's made lots of sacrifices along the way in order to do so, but, all in all, I think he's happy with the choices he's made, and he produces some amazing work. Rob. was in that same, fateful production of "ACL" over 20 years ago; ironically, he was the best singer in the cast, but played "Zack", and therefore never got to sing a single note. I think he'd call that an example of something he did in order to finance the things he did for love, rather than something he loved doing.

I cogitated on this difficult dichotomy yesterday as I took a day for myself (Ron was occupied, much to his relief, with judging a high school forensics meet) and made a 3.5 hour road trip to what is Mecca for all mid-Atlantic winter gardening enthusiasts - Pine Knot Farms in Clarksville, VA. It was just as well that Ron couldn't go, because I used the drive time to work on getting the score to "Les Mis" embedded in my ear; as I mentioned to Cosmo, I've recently been cast as Jean Valjean in a local, semi-staged concert version, and wanted to start learning the 80% of the show that I've never sung or taught (I've done "Bring Him Home" for years as an audition song and party request). I'm trying not to get too excited, because this particular production involves not one, but many barricades, more figurative than literal, and may never actually happen. However, I do seriously love the show and its message (probably its having been based on great source material is mostly responsible), and I have to admit to tearing up a couple of times as I listened to three different recordings over the course of my journey. Because of the choices I've made, including things like enjoying eating regularly (not to mention allowing said eating to take control of my life and physique for many years), wanting to live in one location with one person, needing to be near my parents to assist with their care, and concentrating on education as a vocation rather than developing my performance skills, I'll never have the opportunity to sing roles like this in a professional venue. Community productions offer the rare chance for people like myself to do so, and I'll be very excited if the whole thing works out. At any rate, I derived great pleasure from barreling down I-85 and bellowing "2-4-6-0-1" to my heart's content with no one to reach over and smack me.

Beyond the plants I bought at Pine Knot, all of which are beautiful and totally homeless at this point (hence the garage location for these photos - I didn't take the camera with me yesterday, since I knew I couldn't juggle that along with flats of heavy pots), I had a chance to spend some time with some shining examples of folks who are doing what they're doing "for love", and making a living to boot. Dick and Judith Tyler have spent years building their business and developing a massive following throughout the world as experts on the genus Helleborus (Judith is the co-author, along with C. Colston Burrell, of what has become the "bible" for hellebore growers and breeders), and I hope they're able to continue doing so for many years to come. What's impressive is that they steadfastly concentrate on breeding and producing gorgeous, exceptional plants in a day and age where most garden retailers (bless you, Les!) have to be all things to all people in order to stay in business. Not that the Tylers haven't made trade-offs to achieve this; their home and garden, though beautiful, are in an extremely remote location; they do most of their business via mail order; and I'm sure they've made many other sacrifices over the years in order to pursue doing what they love.

The highlight of my day was the fact that Judith, while swamped with visitors, spent a long time with me, showing me plants I've never seen "in person" before. H. vesicarius, which virtually defies cultivation, was in full bloom, as was the extremely rare hybrid between H. niger and H. thibetanus, "Pink Ice". Judith is as delightful, kind and open in person as she is in print and email, and I thoroughly enjoyed being with her and her family.

Jamie, Dick and Judith's son-in-law, is another example of someone whose career and life choices I admire greatly; we talked about his decision to switch from a public school teaching job (similar to the one I've had for 21 years) to teaching cello privately and performing in North Carolina. He mentioned that when he stopped enjoying music, he knew it was time to get out of the classroom and return to the reason for his initially having become a musician - I can't agree more, and although I sometimes wish I'd done something similar, had I done so I would miss many of the things and people in my life now. It's all about finding a balance.
Another friend who has "followed her bliss" for many years and become a brilliant gardener, writer, and speaker in the process is Pamela Harper. I was telling Pam about a discussion my mom and I have every winter about her hydrangeas - she wants "those ugly sticks" cut down , and I have to explain that doing so will keep them from blooming. Pam says, and I agree, that this sort of thing is the reason she never wanted to be a garden designer, although she probably could have made a lot more money had she done so. Interestingly, I heard Penelope Hobhouse say almost the same thing in a recent lecture that was podcast by BBC Gardens Illustrated.

So I'm still working on finding the right proportion of work, time with family and friends, singing, gardening, writing, arranging music, and, oh yeah...sleep. It's a never ending process for all of us, and that's as it should be. For now, I've decided to let Victor Hugo guide me in establishing priorities, because when it's all said and done, I truly believe that "To love another person is [about as close as one will ever get] to see[ing] the face of God."