Out of True

By Judith Fetterley

Sara gave me several books for Christmas.  Among them was a collection of posts from the blog that Ursula Le Guin began in 2010, at the age of 81, and continued until 2017.  The collection is titled No Time to Spare. It appeared in 2017, just a year before LeGuin’s death.

My father, as he aged, was fond of repeating, “Old age is not for sissies.”  I got his point, as he struggled with losing his teeth and his short term memory, though I had to remind him each time of the sexism embedded in this, as in so many other, commonplace sentiments. In her post from November 2010, “The Sissy Strikes Back,” LeGuin writes the perfect retort to this jock-infused announcement: “Old age is for anybody who gets there.”

In her post LeGuin snarls at the punitive pap dished out to the elderly to make them think that the troubles of aging are their fault and if they only walked more, lifted barbells, engaged in positive thinking, lost weight, ate healthier food—the list is endless but it all boils down to not being a sissy—they would be, feel, and think they were younger.  “If I am ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I am headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub,” says LeGuin.

In her introduction to No Time to Spare Joy Fowler calls Le Guin “one of the most noticing people I’ve ever met, always paying attention to the birdsong in the background, the leaf on the tree.”  Here’s what LeGuin noticed that got my attention: “Large, general questions about meaning, etc., can only be answered with generalities, which make me uncomfortable, because it is so hard to be honest when you generalize. If you skip over all the details, how can you tell if you’re being honest or not?

Quakers do not have a creed but we do have testimonies, values we try to live by and to which we try to make our lives bear witness. In Being a Quaker, Geoffrey Durham writes that the testimonies “cover large numbers of interconnected actions and detailed concerns. . . . So the testimony to peace, for example, speaks about the minutiae of our everyday behaviour just as much as it touches the war-like ambitions of national governments.”   Of course it does, because our everyday behavior is what produces the war-like ambitions of nations. The big picture is always made up of hundreds of little pictures. If you leave out the details, you are likely to lie.

The testimony of integrity has gotten my attention since I first encountered it at the Quaker college I attended. For me, it is the basis for all the others. Nothing is more dishonest than oppression for in whatever form it appears oppression is made operational entirely by lies. Oppression creates inequality, and lack of equality makes peace and community and simplicity impossible.

LeGuin’s words, however, bring me back to integrity as a principle of writing as well as living. I have copied her words—“it’s so hard to be honest when you generalize”—onto one of the 3×5 lined index cards I keep on my desk and refer to as I work. It reminds me why I find it so important to be as specific and detailed as possible when writing about the garden and about my life as a gardener.

And it reminds me to avoid generalities. Which is hard. I love generalities, but in my own defense I like to think I love them as an invitation to particulars. If I write, for instance, that gardening is good for you, I can produce a long list of particulars that support this claim. I can start with the research on the soil microbe that stimulates the production of serotonin in the brain and so makes you happy when you dig in the dirt. I can point you to The Well-Gardened Mind, a recent 300-page book by a British psychotherapist, that is filled with additional particulars—statistics, case studies, controlled trials—to support this claim. I can show you photographs of hospitals with healing gardens and invoke data on patient recovery in the presence of plants.

But still, I wonder, is my writing is sufficiently grounded in details? I am good at the particular when it comes to describing plants. Indeed, some readers have gone so far as to say, “Enough already.” But perhaps not so good elsewhere in my writing. And so I find that LeGuin’s observation is pushing me in a different direction. I have come to wonder if only story– that wonderful seedbed of particulars—is truly honest, ironically perhaps, counterintuitively perhaps, because story allows for multiple meanings, multiple interpretations as we revel in the details.

As a garden designer and coach, I took pleasure in convincing clients that, while there are better and worse gardening practices, there are not better and worse gardens. A garden can be a geranium in a pot or a 10 acre native plant habitat. It can be a formal knot garden composed of clipped boxwoods, or a messy border composed of Echinacea and Baptisia and catmint. It can be woodland or meadow, swamp or cactus, Astilbe and Hosta or sunflower and beebalm. Judgment takes a rest when considering what makes a garden. After 40 years in academia, I was glad to take a rest from judgment. I was glad to enter a world of multiple goods.

As I wrestle with my writing, I am drawn more and more to the openness of story and to the conviction that I can be most honest in telling stories. This may prove just a phase, because of course I have big generalities to articulate my purpose in writing about the garden. But even the intent to tell stories may guide me to those details that form the bedrock of integrity.

Struggling to find words to convey how a testimony differs from a creed, Geoffrey Durham writes further, “Each is a pinch on the individual conscience, a response to what they consider, as a woodworker might say, to be ‘out of true.’”

As a new year begins, I have asked myself to consider the question, “What in my life is ‘out of true’?”  Meanwhile, I am having fun telling stories.

The “honesty” plant (Lunaria annua), so-called because of the transparency of its seed pods.


This piece appeared previously at https://perennialwisdom.net It is republished here with the kind permission of Judith Fetterley.

10 November, 2022