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."


Janet said...

Wow Jeff, I guess following your bliss is going to be work, just to know how to balance all of it. Imagine if you had nothing from which you derived pleasure? That each day was a rut --coming from and going to work. Many finally retire and have no idea what to do next. Yours appears to be a life full of possibilities. In that regard you are truly lucky.

You did travel a way down the road to get to Pine Knot Farms.... and you didn't offer to take orders from anyone here? Nice.

So you don't do forensics judging? Both of my offspring participated in forensics here. One came in first in the state. Both are musicians and sing and act as well. You could very well fit in as one of my kids. (they are both becoming educators --first one changed from music to sp ed) I share this because I look at their lives and as busy as they are... they know how to 'play' and it sounds like you do too. Rejoice in the day.

Les said...

So much to say and only two pictures? I was fortunate to hear the Tyler's speak a few years ago at The Tidewater Garden Symposium. I NEVER knew there were so many Hellebores, nor did I think it possible for all of this to be in two people's heads (and hearts). Often when I hear expert speakers detail all of the minutia of their chosen passion - I tend to think about laundry, make to-do lists or daydream. Not so with the Tylers. Of course they told the audience what they needed to know to grow the commonly available selections, but also took us on a tour of the Balkans to see differnt species in their native habitats. They also detailed their breeding program, and it was all time well spent.

I am going to the same symposium this Thursday. It is sponsored by the Norfolk and Va. Beach Council of Garden Clubs and the caliber of the speakers is always surprising for such a small event. I have had the opportunity over the years to hear Tony Avent, Felder Rushing, C. Colston Burrell, Pam Harper, Rick Darke, Ken Druse and many others. All of this for $65 including lunch and door prizes (of which we always donate a good number).

I am not sure what I have written where and to whom so skip this if you have heard it. I changed my career about 15 years ago. I worked in Hotel/Resort management and found myself let go after a takeover when I worked for the Omni next to Waterside. I was not sorry and honestly I think they were glad to see me go as well. It just so happened that I was taking night classes in landscape design but not letting the hotel know. Rather than go back to what was a very stressful, but never boring career that I was not happy in - I chose to take a job in Va. Beach as a retail nursery salesperson (hose monkey). I have never regretted it. It sucks that people have to work for a living, but since I realize that this is most people's lot in life, you might as well do something you enjoy.

These are scary times for anyone considering career changes, but maybe they are great times to be looking for more balance.

Cosmo said...

Hi, Jeff, what a great posting. Salix and I are fortunate to have jobs we love, but thank goodness for gardening! and I always wonder if I could do what the Tylers have done--I live in the woods, though much closer to civilization than they are, and I always feel the Siren song of the country. On the other hand, I don't have the talent, I think, that they have (wanted to be an actress once, too, but I'm a little short there, too). Anyway, I hope Les Mis works and that you'll email the details--I love musicals. And thanks so much for letting me know about the Pine Knot open house--I can't wait to get these babies in the ground. Great post--as always.
(BTW, my idea for a Tidewater expedition? Phillip and I want to stalk Les at his nursery . . .)

Jeff said...

Janet - you sound like a great, supportive mom, and you have some lucky kids there. I won state forensics twice, too, back in the dark ages, and we still laugh about the fact that I actually earned a letter in that "sport"! I'm so busy with teaching music that forensics (Ron coaches his school team as well) isn't part of the equation for me. I do try to enjoy every day, especially since watching my dad, who was totally active and vital, become completely debilitated by a stroke 6 years ago. I think that also is behind my inability to take enough time for sleep, since I'm afraid I'll run out of time one day, too. It's nothing some good psychotherapy wouldn't address, I'm sure.

Les - sorry for the lack of pics! I added a couple, but really had to stretch to come up with them. Too rainy and nasty Saturday for camera work. I'd enjoy all of the conferences and symposia you get to attend; for now, podcasts are a great alternative for me, and the added benefit is that I can garden while listening. I'm really not complaining about my job(s), just wishing I had more time to concentrate on other things I enjoy as well as getting some sleep... Sounds like you made a good move years ago. I still say that when I retire (9 more years, I hope) I'm coming to work for you!

Cosmo - that is a brilliant plan, and I am definitely in. Just let me know when, and we'll make it happen (any excuse to visit one of my favorite places!)

Janet said...

Hey, count me in too. :-)
On the forensics side -- I know what you mean about lettering in forensics. The state winner is proud to have her name on the high school banner in the gym...along with the track and field, tennis, etc. winners.
Sorry about your dad. All the more reason to embrace each day. is a snow day!!