Sunday, February 06, 2011

Neither pure, nor wise, nor good. But I'm trying.

One of the simplest joys in my life takes place once a week, on Sunday mornings, at my kitchen table: while I read the papers and drink coffee, I listen to a Sunday morning concert, featuring my three sons. Because they have been singers and have belonged to a number of ensembles and choruses over the past eight years, we’ve collected many hours of gorgeous choral music concerts. And because they have been among the soloists featured in those groups from time to time, I’m able to lose myself for a few minutes in one of their lovely tenor voices as I relive a particular performance.

I was jolted into present day this morning as I listened. Maybe because it’s February and maybe because we’re coming up on Valentine’s Day, I lingered over one particular song this morning. It was the gorgeous melody and lyrics of “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Candide, a musical by Leonard Bernstein, Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim. Confession: Shortly after I outgrew the “everyone gets a card from everyone else” boxes found in my grade school classrooms each year, Valentine’s Day became one of my least favorite days of the year. An annual forced moment to celebrate love – even if it occurs during years of blissful romance - has never felt right to me.

The question I find myself contemplating this year is how Voltaire (and Bernstein, Wilbur and Sondheim), got it so right yet could be so confounding. And how they were able to pose the day-to-day situation that surrounds love and life so poetically. In “Make Our Garden Grow,” we hear Candide and Cunegonde share their thoughts about the future, and how they can build it together. Here are the lyrics.

CANDIDE: You've been a fool and so have I, but come and be my wife.
And let us try, before we die, to make some sense of life.
We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow...and make our garden grow.

CUNEGONDE: I thought the world was sugar cake for so our master said.
But, now I'll teach my hands to bake our loaf of daily bread.

CANDIDE AND CUNEGONDE: We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow...and make our garden grow.

Let dreamers dream what worlds they please
Those Edens can't be found.
The sweetest flowers, the fairest trees are grown in solid ground.

ENSEMBLE (a cappella)
We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
And make our garden grow!

The idea of doing “the best we know” is what intrigues me. We may all sincerely pledge to do this and that’s terrific. But what if the best we know isn’t enough? What makes one couple endure and another move apart, even when they may face identical circumstances? Maybe one couple knows more than the other.

I think a wedding or a public commitment to each other is the one particular point in time when a couple pledges, before they die, to make some sense of life. If you think about it, all the ballads aside, people build a life together in an effort to do exactly that: to make some sense of life, and prop each other up while they do.

But here’s the thing: sometimes life doesn’t make a lot of sense, even when it should. You do everything “right,” you follow the “rules,” and still, you find yourself wondering where and how you stepped off (or were pushed off) the “sensible” path somewhere along the line and are baffled by the situations you face and what to do next.

Maybe that’s precisely where the pledge to do ‘the best you know’ kicks in. It could be that sometimes the only thing you can agree on is that life makes little sense – but you hang on together and try to figure it out. Maybe you decide to do the best you know…for as long as you can.

On balance, though, I suppose it’s a good thing when the initial excitement of a relationship wanes and daily life emerges to take its place. I suppose that when a couple realizes that the world isn’t only a sugar cake; when they realize it takes work every day to make a life together, a life that’s about as exotic and fanciful as a loaf of bread, they’ve embraced a realistic view of their future.

The pragmatic, practical side of my nature relates strongly to this message. Does that make me cold? After all, almost anyone would agree that dreams and fantasies do not a strong foundation make. Solid ground gives everything a better start, right?

Hmmm. I’m not sure about that, anymore. Solid implies something that’s trustworthy, reliable and safe. But maybe “solid ground” is over-rated. Maybe it’s just way to label something that’s little more than a rigid, unmoving, cold, hard surface. Maybe the sweetest flowers (and children? And marriages?) come from the softest, most pliable soil instead.

What does that mean about the rest of the lyrics? If dreamers dream “what worlds they please,” can they really not be found?

Despite everything I just wrote above, the part of me that’s relentlessly romantic hopes they can be. Because when I choose sentiment over logic, I don’t want to live without imagining the worlds we please. How bleak an outlook we might have without the dreamers among us, willing to share their hope.

Tiger moms aside, we encourage dreams in our children; we used to nurture them in ourselves, too. Dreams of a life, a marriage, a partnership that would make our gardens grow. I think as we grow older, we tuck our own dreams further and further away. We get too busy: building a house and chopping wood and not spending much time at all on “what worlds we please.” I also think that the difference between people who pursue their dreams and people who don’t is that the first group never quite tucks them completely out of sight. Maybe they evolve, maybe they get re-imagined as the years pass and circumstances change but they never really lose sight of them.

I may have overlooked the most important phrase of the lyrics. “We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good.” Thank God. I’m thrilled to accept that description, and by extension, that definition of some of the decisions I’ve made in life. Sometimes – sure. I suppose there may have been moments during my life when any one of those words could be ascribed to something I said or did. Few and far between no doubt but even very occasionally, I’ll take it. But as a rule, when it comes to the big things: no, sorry. There are simply too many variables in just about any choice I made that make the answer complicated.

The trouble is that sometimes the right choice at twenty isn’t the right choice at thirty-five. Or the right one at 35 no longer works at 52. What does that imply about me? Selfishness? Egocentricity? That everything is relative; that decisions are pragmatic at best and should never be considered final?

I don’t know.

I’m over-thinking again, I get it. Maybe the lyrics will save me from myself and my confusion about just about everything these days if I let them. Maybe the best that can be said is that no matter the outcome, no matter how it’s perceived, no matter how it feels or looks or appears to be, the simple truth of life is that we try to do the best we know. And make our garden grow.


Pookie said...

Thank you for this beautiful piece. I love the introspective, brave self-examination, the powerful prose and the message. You are a writer and it's clearly bursting out of you because it must. I love having a seat at the table, waiting for the next installment.

Also, I believe that we rarely get a true picture of what's going on with "other couples." I think more often than not, each in our own way, we're all doing the best we can and tending our gardens.

renee said...

Thank you so much.

I've said this a few (or maybe dozens of times) to my boys when we talk about relationships and observations of same: "You know who knows what goes on in a marriage? Two people. That's it. So no matter what it appears to be, don't count on it. You could be right. But you might not be."

Thank you again for sharing such kind words about the piece.

Inspector Clouseau said...

Nice work. I came across your blog while “blog surfing” using the Next Blog button on the blue Nav Bar located at the top of my site. I frequently just travel around looking for other blogs which exist on the Internet, and the various, creative ways in which people express themselves. Thanks for sharing.

renee said...

Thanks for your comment and kind words, Inspector. Expressing dismay, incredulity or unfettered astonishment at daily life would be the 'formal' framework for this blog.

Unfortunately, despite creating it, I rarely follow the format, which means I post musings such as the most recent one you read.

I hope you'll be back and thanks again for taking a moment to share a hello.

Khalid said...

really amazing stuff

renee said...

Khalid ~ In the spirit of your succinct and lovely comment, I'll simply say: thank you so much! And I hope you'll be back again.