I guess this notion was brought to my consciousness when I visited England with my daughter briefly in May of 2009. We weren’t there very long and we tried to cram as much in as possible, so we kept moving a lot. We spent six nights in London and four in Birmingham (as a home base for “touristy” trips). We did a lot of the usual “tourist” stuff, which I won’t go into today, but one thing I noticed was that almost everywhere we went there were really pretty gardens. Now I had spent some time in the gardens at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, but I hadn’t really noticed them to the extent that I did in England. For whatever reasons, the English seem to be quite avid gardeners, but that’s not my point; I’m really not a gardener, myself.
My point is that I kept noticing these gardens and taking pictures of them because they stuck me as being quite pretty, but I also started to notice that I was simply enjoying the sense of relaxation and pleasure I was getting from just wandering around looking at flowers and landscapes which somebody had clearly crafted for pleasure. Yes, I WAS on vacation, but I think I enjoyed just wandering around those gardens as much as seeing the Tower of London (which also has some really pretty gardens), Stonehenge (which is in something of a garden-like setting), the West End (full of interesting theatres, but with a few gardens [parks] about), shops, museums, churches, etc. The Shakespeare sites in Stratford-Upon-Avon all include lovely gardens, as well, and the RSC theatre stands in a garden-like park setting near the river, as does Holy Trinity Church. Of course, many churches have rather garden-like settings.
In any event, it struck me that I had spent far too many years rushing from place to place and not really enjoying any of the places I had been. To borrow an idea from Yoda, I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was. The point of this post is to try to encourage others to avoid what I now see was a mistake by suggesting a means of grounding yourself and focusing on “where you are.” I speak, specifically, of gardens.
I don’t remember exactly when Bonnie and I first became “Passholders” at the Biltmore Estate, but I know it took me a good while to learn how to take advantage of this status. This is a sort of “membership” which allowed us to be admitted at any time and (by the time we made more than two visits, it was cheaper to have an annual pass than to pay regular admission). I think what finally made sense to me was that if you just bought a one day ticket, you felt that you had to do EVERYTHING in order to get your money’s worth (a not unreasonable notion). What we decided was, since we lived within an hour of the estate, as passholders, we didn’t have to do it all each time! We could combine a brief trip to just a part of the estate (just the house, just the gardens, just lunch at Cedric’s or the Stables, or the like) with other shopping in Asheville, or something else. It didn’t HAVE to be an all day commitment just to Biltmore. Once we reached this conclusion, the sense of freedom and pleasure it gave us allowed us to appreciate Biltmore in a way we really hadn’t done before. We even made some trips just to visit, say, the main floor of the house, because we wanted to just focus on the lavish floral displays on that floor and didn’t feel the need to see the whole house on every visit.
Gradually, this notion has spread to other places for us. Since we have settled in Omaha, we have become members of: the local zoo (one of the tops zoos in the world and far too big to thoroughly enjoy in a single trip); a local museum (the Durham) which is set up in what was originally the major train station in Omaha (a lot to take in here in relation to local history and visiting exhibits from the Smithsonian and other major museums) and the local botanical garden (the outdoor gardens aren’t a lot in the winter, but the conservatory [new] is worth an occasional visit and there are changing exhibits in the Visitor Center). We anticipate that the gardens will be really pretty once we get through the winter and they weren’t bad looking in the late fall when we joined.
In about three months (we’ve only lived here about five), we’ve made two visits to the zoo (a lot of which is outdoors and it’s been cold a good deal), four to the gardens (once to take the tour and get the lay of the land and three times for exhibits) and twice to the museum (once just to see the place [and the Xmas decorations] and once for a special exhibit of costume designs by the designer for the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Okay, so I’m retired and have a lot of time, etc. That’s true. It’s also true that I now live in an urban area where there are, almost certainly, more opportunities than is true in many, more rural places. On the other hand, the Biltmore Estate was a good hour away from Cullowhee and we were able to get there at least five or six times a year (probably more) and it was worth it because, like many of the places I’ve referred to, it was constantly changing, but you had to go with some frequency to appreciate that.
Almost everywhere is within reach of some sort of garden, zoo, museum or park (think in terms of a big national or state park – Great Smoky Mountains National Park anyone?), which could become YOUR place, or one of them. Some don’t even cost anything to visit except some time and some gas.
Personally, I’ve become very fond of roses and rose gardens, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time pleasantly wandering the Biltmore Rose Garden in the past. I’ve discovered that I like a lot of gardens, however, especially structured gardens like the Walled Garden at Biltmore, so I’m especially looking forward to some of the more structured gardens (the Rose Garden, the Victorian Garden and the English Perennial Border at the Lauritzen Gardens here in Omaha.
There’s an exhibit of costumes worn by Katherine Hepburn coming to the Durham Museum in a few weeks, which, I expect, I’ll find of some real interest to my theatrical side. I’ve always enjoyed zoos, so the Doorly Zoo (especially the big cat exhibit) is something I could visit quite often, although there are a lot of the animals I enjoy visiting and just walking around the zoo grounds is a lot like visiting a garden.
What I’d like to leave you with, however, is not a catalog of what I’m looking forward to, but my encouragement to take a look around you and see what’s available to you at a reasonable cost. Yes, “membership” can cost a fair amount, so I don’t wish to encourage you to throw your money away on just anything. However, I’ll bet that you have at least one option available wherever you live and state and national parks tend to be very low cost. It does mean making a commitment of some time. I know that’s hard, but it’s worth it.
Learn something from an “old guy.” Life’s too short and changes too rapidly not to occasionally turn off the cell phone and spend a little time just looking at the flowers, trees, animals, architecture or something not directly related to your work. It doesn’t have to take a long time or be terribly expensive. You may well even be able to combine it with other stuff which feels more “necessary” (as we often did). I think you’ll find, as I have much too late in my life, that you return to the “important” stuff a little bit more refreshed and relaxed and much better able to concentrate on whatever really needs to be done. You may even discover that some of what seemed so important really isn’t. Just that could be worth the time spent….