Monday, August 15, 2011

When Metaphor Fails

This year, my wife and I made a token attempt to start a garden. We managed to pull ourselves away from the home renovation long enough to carve a perennial border out of a piece of our side yard.

Right now, it looks like a tattered tapestry. Some perennials have established with athletic vigor, while others lie low, perhaps waiting till next year. I’ve seeded the holes in the border with summer annuals, which have quickly taken advantage of their slower to establish neighbors.  The riotous color and size of the annuals have eroded what bit of compositional clarity that initially existed. Weeds run rampant throughout.  Crabgrass, Bermuda grass, and Bindweed dominate the area where we plan to add a stone path and terrace. They control territory like a Mexican drug cartel.  With so little time for the garden, the weeds and I maintain an uneasy d├ętente—they have their territory, and I have mine.

Already I’m making notes about what needs to be changed. Too many filler plants, not enough structural ones. Needs more upright spires. Dot in a few architectural shrubs. Add low, dark-leafed annuals along the edges for contrast. Too many thin, linear masses: re-mass perennials in block-ier, thicker masses. The list grows by the day.

August crushes my idealism. All winter and spring I made pretty pictures of the garden in the soft light of my mind. In May, these images felt almost attainable. But August is the ultimate judge; the glare of the midday sun bears upon me the inescapable force of reality. All prior imaging disappears with the dew. The garden is simply what it is.

Realism is the theme of my summer.  Last month my father went through a complicated open-heart surgery and began a miraculous recovery from a stroke. Seeing him suffer through an intense recovery has also confronted me with a jarring reality. With a recovery like his, nothing goes the way you expect. With every hurdle he overcomes, another battery of complications sprout up. He has faced his recovery with a strength and grace that is indescribable unless witnessed. The man I knew as the sweetest man on earth has proved to be one of the strongest.

It is times like this when reality itself overcomes our ability to process it in words. When tragedy strikes, I find myself instinctively trying to cloak it in metaphor, to find words to distance me from the experience itself. But the firmness and weight of that reality causes metaphor to fail. What analogy is there for watching someone you love suffer?  What platitudes?  I was recently reading an account of a father, writer Aleksander Hemon, who lost his ninth-month old daughter to cancer. During her illness, he described, “Isabel’s illness overrode any form of imaginative involvement on my part. All I cared about was the firm reality of her breaths on my chest, the concreteness of her slipping into slumber as I sang my three lullabies. I did not want to extend myself in any direction but hers.”*

Since my father’s surgery, I find myself directing the affection I feel for him more urgently toward my eleven-month son. It is my way of bridging the distance. As Jude slips into sleep, I brush my fingers across his temple and channel a prayer for my father. It is the only prayer I ever really mean: please, please, please. The precious beating heart in front of me is linked to the precious healing heart of my dad in a sea of my confused, inadequate love.

After my son has gone to bed and the dishes have been washed, I step outside to the garden. The sun is setting, and I make a half-hearted effort to pull a few weeds. For a moment, I squint my eyes and try to recall the image of what I thought this garden would look like. But I can’t remember. All I can see is what is here.

*  The referenced article was written by Aleksander Hemmon, “The Aquarium,” The New Yorker, June 13, 2011, pg. 50.


  1. I lost my father six years ago to a heart attack. There were no words to express my feelings back then or now really. We try to use cliches and metaphors but the deep sorrow never really goes completely away. We should count our blessings each and every day, and treat our love ones as if it's our last day on earth. I am sorry for your pain and fear of loss. Prayer works for me also. God Bless . Greg.

  2. Greg,

    I really appreciate you sharing that and the message. You said it better and more eloquently than I could have. God bless you as well. Thomas

  3. My father died 15 years ago, suddenly during surgery, in mid-August. This time of year when in the garden, I remember his coming home every evening and going immediately out to his own garden. Very unlike mine, it was a vegetable garden, planted in hard red Mississippi clay. He grew string beans, turnip and mustard greens, peas, okra, tomatoes, peppers, some of which I still have preserved in vinegar (the hot pepper sauce southerners like on their greens). Metaphor may fail, and sometimes memory does too, but the garden seems to be a place where we do something like prayer. All the best to your father in his recovery, and to your son.

  4. I always tell people frustrated with their gardens...that gardens are like life an ongoing process with all that that entails. We grieving my father's passing I took solace in the garden and it rewarded me with life bursting out in a lovely beautiful sanctuary to bury my tears. Thank you for sharing such a real and touching account of your struggle for what I would call balance in your life. Letting the garden go to focus on things like your son...who will be 11 months only once and sending prayers to your father who needs them now seems appropriate. Gardens can, light, peace and laughter to you and your family! Laurin

  5. Best wishes to you and your family

    When my life was its most chaotic -- after my partner Robb was paralyzed -- I found great solace in weeding my junky little urban garden, out behind the warehouses of West Oakland. Well, that just being thankful for the tiniest pleasures in life.

    What other prayer is there, other than "please?"

  6. James,

    Lovely note. Sometimes having the place itself--the garden--and something to do is solace in itself, right? There may not be meaning in it, but the fact it is there helps. Thomas

  7. Laurin,

    As weedy as it is, it is a sanctuary of sorts. Thanks so much for your note.

  8. Lisa,

    And your wonderful blog emerged from that time as well. It has been a delight.


  9. This is a beautiful post. I look forward to all of your updates, but this one is one of the best I've ever read on the relationship between life and gardening. Wow.

  10. Thomas, You break my heart. This reminds me of the mournful cry of scripture 'Is there no balm in Gilead?' The cry of deep soul pain. It is through nurturing life that we heal our pain; your son, your garden, your father. It is the philosophy of the garden; for everything there is a season under heaven. Reap in the time of reaping, sow in the time of sowing...

  11. Thomas, your comments are timely for so many of us are going through tough times. Your words were so beautiful and comforting. I hope your father can read what you wrote. What a beautiful tribute to him and the son he raised. Bless you for sharing what is in your heart and making all of us feel connected to each other.

  12. Thomas, It would seem that both children and experiences with death and serious illness teach us to live in the moment -- if only because we can't manage the time and energy to do anything else. Enjoy the beauties that the garden has to offer, however imperfect. Before you know what has happened, Jude will be old enough to be put to work helping you with that ever-growing wish list of projects.
    I hope your father's up and down trajectory of recovery is mostly up and that he will be feeling much better soon. -Jean

  13. Thomas, I feel your angst. I lost my father to a 15 yr battle with Alzheimers. I still feel the raw pain of it. But I find my solace, my soul in my garden. It is my passion, where I find my life and light. I cannot keep up with the weeds either and yet I know they will still be there even if I weed. But I go on and I again find strength in them. In the way they hang on. I know the garden is a process and it changes as my life changes forever growing. I wish for you that garden. It will come in time when you are ready. BTW, I love your writing and your blog...

  14. Anonymomus--Thank you. That means a lot to me.

    Nancy--Always love to hear from you. You make a great point about nurturing. My poor little boy is getting more attention than he probably wants as I wish I could do for my father what I do for him: make everything ok.

    Linda--thank you so much for your kind comment. It really touched me. And blessings to you during this time.

    Jean--That's great advice. I think I do cherish him more because of this experience. ANd he's already a fixture in the garden with us. He's very good at imitating bees now.

    Donna--I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. It's wonderful to hear about your relationship with the garden. My garden is so new, it doesn't have the depth and richness that yours does. But I look forward to developing it. Many thanks for your comment.

  15. We can turn to gardens, real or imaginary, to help us escape the complex realities that surround them. Your garden is preparing you for bigger things than you can imagine. Somehow, I think you already know this. Thank you for your poignant post.

  16. During emotionally trying times, a garden can be a place of solace.... What a beautiful and touching post.

  17. In no way do I wish to mitigate or diminish your moving reflections on your father and your family. But I must, as an English prof and poet, comment on metaphor as a cloak. I think in such raw moments as you had it's easy to see metaphor as a cloak, something that covers deeper emotion and connection. But a metaphor's true power--its unique ability in language--is to transcend time and place, to connect disparate x with disparate y. A reader to a writer. A complex, un-say-able idea to a more distilled, real, immediate image we can sink our teeth into, and that hits home. A metaphor is a way for us to grapple with reality and live it more intensely by seeing beyond and through it to what we feel--perhaps no other creature can do that.

    The author Lisa Knopp says this: "A metaphor is more than just a way to decorate a literal statement. Aristotle spoke of a metaphor’s ability to induce insight. That insight comes through a recognition of the similarities and the differences between the two things being compared…. If you doubt the power of a single metaphor, spend the rest of this day considering how different our treatment of each other, our philosophies, the health of our planet would be, if for the past millennia we had personified nature as a father instead of a mother."

    I guess I'm on my soapbox because so much writing these days refuses metaphor, and in this way, makes livable moments less livable and meaningful. Reality tv-ish. Lack of metaphor is cloaking our lives, not the other way around.

  18. Benjamin,
    I enjoyed your thoughtful comment. In no way did I take offense.

    I agree with much of what you say about metaphor. Metaphor does have power to connect and transcend. And in many ways, language itself is a metaphor, so in a technical sense, there is no way for metaphor to really fail in the sense I was saying.

    Here was my larger point: metaphor is a way of conceptualizing the world through something else, or another experience or concept. In that way, it distances you from the experience itself. There are a handful of experiences in life—particularly tragedies—that are like nothing else. To make an analogy of that experience weakens the experience, rather than heightening it. In those instances, choosing to filter that experience through metaphor is a bit disingenuous. It suppresses other ways of experiencing that moment or emotion that are more real and immediate.

    I guess I don’t mind that much of contemporary writing refuses the metaphor. I think it’s part of the larger statement that there may not be meaning in every event. Or that if there is meaning, it is not stable or absolute. My point—which is essentially a phenomenological one—is that experience itself can be perceived without having to apply the filter of metaphor.

  19. Hi Thomas,
    Without getting into a discussion of metaphor or phenomenology or anything like that, I just want to say that this is just a great piece of writing. I mean, it actually gave me chills and I went back and read it again. I never do that!

    I really hope that you have time to keep producing pieces like this--I know that you can't possibly be just dashing them off at your lunch hour--because this is the kind of garden writing I would go to a lot of trouble to seek out, and I'd bet others would, too.

    Mary :o)

  20. Well, now I want to add to what I said above:

    I think what makes this piece great is that it DOESN'T use the garden as a metaphor. It's so easy to find metaphors in the garden and how easy for a garden writer to turn to those metaphors (cliches) about life, death, renewal, etc. But your approach here is creative and different, and thus, makes a more interesting and moving essay.

    So to the "Prof and Poet", I think that's what actually makes Thomas's post so great!


  21. Mary,

    I very much appreciate the comment. And that you got the whole metaphor thing :)

    Many thanks,

  22. Thomas,
    I also thought your post very moving and so relevant to our generation with older parents. The hopes you have for the garden mirroring the hopes you have within your family and for your son. But it's true that our relationships can often trump the dreams we have for our gardens; you do have your priorities straight. My best wishes to your father for a full recovery and to you, your family and your garden dream. I'm convinced it will all unfold in the proper time.

  23. Thomas,
    I wish your father good health and strength in his recovery. Your honesty in your writing is so moving. All good things to you and your family...the garden as you know will be just what you imagined it to be when it is meant to be. Nicole

  24. Thank you for this very poignant reflection. Yes, we only have our reality.


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