Tulips, Books, Gardens, and Dirt

I’m not much of a gardener. Yet when I return to Minnesota and look out at spring trying its best to happen, I want to help things along. The trees are working hard at their new leaves. They make it look so effortless. Mysterious green sprigs are trying to poke through the sodden mulch in our forsaken (for Florida!) flower beds. So maybe that’s why I think: It’s time to do something with dirt.

Good news! My friend Mary and I signed up for a special garden book discussion group with beloved teacher Toni McNaron. I was a student in Toni’s Virginia Woolf classes at the U way back! The group meets once a month at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

How delightful to talk about books and gardens in the glorious surroundings of the Arboretum–where other people create all that color and order! The tulips were absolutely astounding–announcing to the world: “Here we are. We made it through that bad winter. See how strong and bright we are! Can you believe it?”

Tulips at the Arboretum

Tulips at the Arboretum

So as much as I enjoyed the novel we discussed with its focus on Japanese gardens, I must say that it was the real, in-the-moment tulips that live in my mind. Their stunning display of exuberance rather over-whelmed the small brown Japanese garden tucked beside them. Color!

The book under discussion was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Now if you’re looking for a carefully written novel about Japanese gardens, Malaya during and following World War II, internment camps, tattooing, communist guerrilla warfare, kamikaze pilots, memory and forgetfulness, all entwined around two amazing love stories, then you will enjoy this novel.

I certainly did. It is one that invites re-reading and lots of time to unravel a challenging, non-linear plot. I read it in three versions: Kindle, audio, and paper, but I most enjoyed the paper where I could flip back and forth and write in the margins.

Sam: "Which shall I read? Both!"

Sam: “Which shall I read? Both!”

For our next meeting, we’re reading Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, a collection of  seventy-two alphabetized essays full of practical, personal, and witty musings on topics like “Annuals,” “Earthworms,” “Mazes,” “Longevity,” and “Tulips.” This last short essay was one of the first I read after that lovely meeting with the profusion of tulips waiting outside our classroom door.  IMG_2165

After a long section on tulipomania, the origins of the name tulip, and certain tulip disease, Perenyi writes: “Linguistics and unclassifiable diseases aside, tulips are one of the gardener’s joys and I can’t imagine anyone with even a patch of ground not growing them. Unlike most northern gardeners, I’m not much moved by the first crocus, poking its brave little head up among the dead leaves….the tulips are what I wait for.”

So I’m going to search for Perenyi’s tulip reccomendatons in a few on-line gardening catalogs and order striped ones, Darwins, modern Ottomans, Rembrandts (great names) which follow a magical sequence of spring-time blooming. I’m going to dig down deep into the dirt and plant some tulips. Then sit back and hope!

If the tulips don’t appear next spring, at least I will have satisfied my urge to dig in the dirt.


P. S. If you want to hear a young woman read “Night,” one of the essays in  Green Thoughts, click here. She makes one mistake: the book was first published in 1981. Eleanor Peyenyi, who passed away at age 91, was born in 1918.


Writing Jumpstart:

Here are a few gardening quotes. If you feel so inspired, take out your writer’s notebook and write about gardens, tulips, dirt, spring–whatever comes to mind.

To garden is to let optimism get the better of judgment.”                                                    — Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

“Then I went out for two hours late in the afternoon and put in a hundred tulips. In itself that would not be a big job, but everywhere I have to clear space for them. . . . I really get to weeding only in the spring and autumn, so I am working through a jungle now. Doing it I feel strenuously happy and at peace. At the end of the afternoon on a gray day, the light is sad and one feels the chill, but the bitter smell of earth is a tonic.”
— May Sarton, 1912-1995, New England poet, author, and feminist
“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
— Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet, and environmentalist


Life-changing Books: Continued

We usually think of life-changing events as precipitating actions in the real world, such as a birth or death, marriage or divorce, but to think about how  written words (especially the words of a work of fiction) can have such an effect, well, that gives great power to the imagination.

Often these life-changing books are those we read first as children. Anne Lamott says that since her childhood, she must have read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time a dozen times.Unknown

A Wrinkle in Time saved me,” she says, “because it so captured the grief and sense of isolation I felt as a child. I was 8 years old when it came out, in third grade, and I believed in it — in the plot, the people and the emotional truth of their experience. . . . the book greatly diminished my sense of isolation as great books have done ever since.”


John Irving was a little older when he read Great Expectations, the book that he says changed his life:

“I was 15. It made me want to be able to write a novel like that. It was very visual — I saw everything, exactly — and the characters were more vivid than any I had heretofore met on the page. I had only met characters like that onstage, and not just in any play — mainly in Shakespeare. Fully rendered characters, but also mysterious. I loved the secrets in Dickens — the contrasting foreshadowing, but not of everything. You both saw what was coming and you didn’t. Hardy had that effect on me, too, but when I was older. And Melville, but also when I was older.”


Richard Ford says that the book that changed his life and served as the inspiration for his novel The Sportswriter was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.  Ford views The Moviegoer as “a renewing experience” and Binx as a hero “headed toward the light” and “trying find a vocabulary for affirmation, trying to find the institutions in life that will let him like life better and be better at it.”Unknown-1

Ira Glass dedicated a This American Life radio show to  “The Book That Changed Your Life.” (Click on the highlight to hear the program.) This show (which includes a segment by David Sedaris) is a wonderful illustration of the many ways a book can change a person’s life.

So how did hearing Miss Caine read Les Meserables to our seventh grade class change my life? She and the novel were links to another world–a world radically different and far away from a hot classroom in southeastern North Carolina in the fifties, a world with great conflicts and moral issues, a world that explored the nature of love, compassion, justice, revenge and the effects of poverty. Of course, I didn’t think about these great themes at the time. I was just a kid who loved a good story and was happy to avoid diagramming sentences. But when Miss Caine read to us, I left the classroom behind and saw the people and the story in my mind. I was literally lifted out of myself.


“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
― Emily DickinsonSelected Letters


Writing Jumpstart: Do you remember being read to? What are you reading now? What do you want to read? Have you read something that calls you into some sort of action or that inspires you to write in a certain way?  Go for ten minutes.

A Book That Changed My Life

A few evenings ago at a lovely dinner party during one of those conversations that move easily from topic to topic (errant fire alarms to parking fines) and place to place (an ATM in Burma to a burly motorcycle officer in Germany), my friend Susan talked about David Brooks’s lecture at the Chautaugua Institute she attended in July. When Brooks asked his students at Yale University about the last time they read a book that changed their lives, they stared at him.

David Brooks, Chautaugua, 8/16/13

David Brooks, Chautaugua,

“You’ve got to understand that we don’t really read that way,” they told him. “We read to get through the class, but the deep, penetrative reading, we just don’t have time for.”

This made me think:  Could I do that? Could I name one book that changed my life? My first challenge was trying to remember all the important books I’ve read over the years. But then it hit me: if a book changed my life, how could I ever forget it?

Finally I did remember one book. And so I wrote the following riff on that book. In a future blog, I hope to talk more about why and how that book changed my life.images


Miss Caine Reads Les Miserables to Our Seventh Grade Class (April 1955)

There you are, Miss Caine,
the most beautiful woman we have ever seen.
Your dark hair curls almost to your shoulders
and springs up around your face in tendrils
that your long fingers can never tame.
Your pencil skirt pulls across your hips
and a white blouse with a small collar
reveals your long neck. You wear
nylons and black pumps and sit with legs crossed
on your desk. The book is in your lap.

After lunch, we enter your classroom
all sweaty from running around the playground.
Some of us have begun to pair up.
I’m in love with Robert Owens.
My friend Donna Kirby isn’t sure,
but she thinks that James likes her.
Our first dance is in a few weeks.
My mother is making me a pink taffeta dress
with a layer of net over the full skirt.
Last night I turned as Mother measured
and marked the hem with her chalk.

But today as we return from lunch
still smelling like wax paper and milk cartons,
you open the big book and start to read.
We settle into our wooden desks.
Some cross their arms and
lower shoulders onto desk tops.
Miss Caine doesn’t seem to mind.
She is caught up in the lives
of Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette.
French street fighting explodes around our heads
and we know the meaning of the eternal chase
and we know what it means to be an orphan
even though we are as secure as we will ever be.

The bell will ring in three hours.
I will walk home and have peanut butter crackers
and half a small Coke with my mother
as we watch Edge of Night.
But for now, Miss Caine reads
Les Miserables and we will
never be quite the same again.

–Vicky Lettmann (8/19/13)


Writing Jumpstart: A Book That Changed Your Life. Go for ten minutes.

I enjoy reading your jumpstart writings. So send me one of yours. Please limit to 500 words.  (See contact page.) I plan to publish a few on the site. Thanks!