September 6, 2015
Mid-last week, with North Dakota political careers waning, waxing, and even shattering, I retreated to the sanctity of my vegetable garden out behind my house. In Voltaire’s classic novella Candide (1759), when at long last the hero realizes that we do not live in “the best of all possible worlds,” that bad things happen to good people, and—often enough—good things happen to really bad people, and the central fact of life is disappointment, he decides to withdraw from the great world and simply cultivate his garden. I recommend Candide to anyone who is searching for answers these days. And a garden.
All you have to do is get down on your knees and take in that greatest of all garden smells, ripening tomatoes, and you realize instantly what is and what is not important in life. You can talk about serving mankind or “giving back” or “employing the gifts God has given me,” all you want, but almost everyone seeking public office or high achievement is doing it for himself or herself, not, as Jefferson put it, “to ameliorate the condition of mankind.” Life is really about very simple things, including the thirst for power. Because we continually tend to forget that truth, we cause a lot of damage to ourselves and others.
It was the great realist John Adams who tried to talk sense to Thomas Jefferson in their famous post-presidential correspondence. America’s greatest dreamer Jefferson had the curious notion that “man” is born good, not evil, and capable of “indefinite perfectibility.” Jefferson believed that if we work hard at it each of us can become our best self, and that the aggregation of several million best selves becomes a mild-mannered, self-governing republic. Adams response to that was, if I may summarize glibly, “Have you looked around lately!?”
Adams believed that the number one motive of human nature is not benevolence or a commitment to justice, but rather what he called the “rage for distinction.” According to Adams, each of us insists on being the hero of his (or her) narrative. If you doubt this, sit in a coffee house one of these days and listen to people talk about their disputes with bosses, co-workers, siblings, friends, and children. “So I looked him right in the eye and I told him….” “She had the audacity to say to me…. Can you believe it?” Nobody ever says, “I was wrong and she was right,” or “I made a terrible mistake that I will regret for the rest of my life.” According to Aaron Lazare, America’s leading expert on the art of reconciliation, even most apologies are self-serving. Any apology that begins with “I’m sorry but,” says Lazare, is no apology at all.
John Adams believed that Wealth, Beauty, Strength, Social Stature, and advantageous Marriage alliances would always trump integrity, intelligence, and creativity. He believed that the basic human urge was to be pre-eminent at something, anything, even if that distinction has nothing to do with actual talent or merit, and that at the very least each of us wants to be better than the next guy–at something. Were he here to sputter, Adams (1735-1826) would point to Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian as prime examples of how Beauty can give an otherwise not very interesting person almost unlimited power. He would point to Donald Trump as proof that fabulous wealth and a commensurately overblown ego can make you, at least temporarily, “king of the world.”
In a letter to Jefferson on November 15, 1813, Adams summed up his view of what he called “the vanity of human wishes.” “Take away Appetite and the present generation would not live a month and no future generation would ever exist. Thus the exalted dignity of human Nature would be annihilated and lost. And in my opinion, the whole loss would be of no more importance, than putting out a Candle, quenching a Torch, or crushing a Firefly.” By “appetite” Adams meant lust for food, lust for sexual satisfaction, lust for power, lust for distinction.
For Voltaire, and also for Jefferson, the answer to our troubled engagement with the wider world is the humble vegetable patch in the back yard.
My grandmother Rhoda Straus was a great gardener, and yet she never talked about it as some kind of virtue. For several decades she needed the food to survive and had no money to buy it. Later, when she was modestly well off, she gardened out of habit and because she preferred the taste of vegetables she had grown herself. She “put up” several hundred quarts of produce per year. The basement of the little farmhouse my grandparents lived in was a storehouse of humble abundance. She’d send me down to get a jar of something, and even as a child I would stand before the homemade wooden shelves in awe. The hundreds of jars of produce—rhubarb sauce, beets, beans, pears, peaches, cherries, tomatoes, and pickles—created a kind of glass pastel wall against the gray cinder blocks. It was like a stained glass window depicting pure rural virtue. My mouth actually puckers as I remember her rhubarb sauce, which she would serve over ice cream.
My grandmother never ran for public office, never wrote a letter to the editor, never went to a conference, never gave a public speech, never bought a dress that cost over $50, never used margarine, never drank in a bar, never worked a crowd. She had her first Chinese meal—a little reluctantly–when she was 75. She made more than 100 quilts in her life, and a gazillion crocheted Afghans. She baked bread twice a week for all but the first seven years and the last seven weeks of her life.
When I was 25 or so, she taught me how to make cucumber pickles. It’s one of my favorite stories. We made twenty jars of pickles in a single afternoon. She kept 18. I got one jar for my mother and one for myself. I still have my jar, 35 years later. It is maybe my greatest treasure. It is the last thing I pack when I move and the first thing I open when I unpack in a new place. I will never open that jar, but when I fall into despair or feel, in Wordsworth’s words, that “the world is too much with us,” I pull down that jar of pickles and gaze at it like a crystal ball.
In the last three weeks I have put up 42 jars of pickles. Most were sliced, because my cucumbers have grown like zucchini this summer, but on Monday of last week I pickled three jars of uncut cucumbers in honor of Rhoda Straus–and what really matters. The gestation period on that achievement was 35 years.
It was Walt Whitman who wrote, “I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained; I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins; They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God; Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things.”
Back in July I thought this was going to be the year of the tomato, not the year of the cucumber.
The best laid plans of mice and men.