Conversations With My Gardener

I remember once…I met this woman…She was an Indian woman. Older than I was. And it was there…we knew each other at once. You have to trust this kind of thing. …It has nothing to do with age, or sex, or color, or anything of that sort. Doris Lessing

When was the last time you had a genuine conversation with someone, rather like a dialogue where one person poses a question or makes a statement and the other replies in kind and it continues on this way until you run out of steam?

A few days ago I had a chance to see Conversations with My Gardener once again. How could I resist? The beauty of the French countryside, in this case the area around Rhone Alps, close to the Swiss border in southern France, drew me to the film the first time. I also went to see the no less special nature of the friendship between the Parisian painter and the gardener he hires to bring back to life the vegetable garden at his country estate.

This time I saw something different, namely the character of the conversations between the two men, each from a different class, educational experience, and life’s work. What was the source of the deep rapport between these two dissimilar men? How were they able to find so much to talk about, from the mundane to the reflective, with such pleasure? Was there any distinctive feature of what they said or how they it that created such a perfect blending?

As I viewed the film once again and thought further about it, I realized it was their total honesty in disclosing themselves, in bringing their own experiences to each other. Each of them in turn followed with something about their own life. They listened to one another. They heard one another. And they responded to what was said.

How rare is that, how often does it occur to you? You have to let down your guard and hope that it will be appreciated and reciprocated. You never know if that will happen. But it’s a good way to start, if that kind of exchange means anything to you.

It isn’t associated with men or women; it can occur with the young and the old. There is nothing sexual about it. That would only ruin it, although there is an element of intimacy connected with it. It happens immediately and is thoroughly exhilarating.

One night several years ago, I had dinner with a librarian. She was about to head out of town to play poker in Las Vegas. Yes a poker playing librarian; they seem to come in all varieties now. Naturally, the juxtaposition of librarian and poker player fascinated me. (The Secret Lives of Librarians, a Times Notable Book of the Year.)

Anyway, we talked as one does when having dinner with a librarian, especially, a poker playing one. I tried to find out what it is about poker than meant so much to her. She replied, “I am most myself when I am playing poker.”

It is a phrase I sometimes use about myself in some situations, but not while playing poker which is not among my current activities, although now that I know a local librarian, it might become one. After our rendezvous, I began to think further about when individuals are most themselves.

I began by looking more closely at the concept. What does it mean to say you are most yourself? The phrase implies that each person has a central core, one that is in some way set apart from the other self or selves that we usually display. The oracle admonished us to “Know thyself.” What is this self that the oracle is referring to?

I think the Graham [Greene] was not simply “made up of two persons.” Rather, that he gave rein to disparate states of mind as they successively possessed him, putting these to service in his work…with years, however, it had come to prevail for its own sake as a mood of defiance, directed against the tedium of rational existence. Shirley Hazzard Greene on Capri

The conversation between the painter and gardener was something like that, two persons who realized when they met that they had been childhood friends, each expressing the way they felt at this time in their life--the painter struggling with a separation from his wife, the gardener enjoying his time in the garden, as he was succumbing to an illness.

Both men becoming increasing attached to one another, the pleasure of their friendship and the opportunity to display it and help one another. They were different people at other times and situations, the painter a sophisticated art critic, the gardener a railway company laborer. Don’t we all carry around another self or several, rather than one?