Retreat to the Garden

marget roach book coverNo one will be surprised to hear that my favorite book to read is what I call the “Do-Over! memoir.” More specifically, it’s the “woman’s midlife-Do-Over!-in-a-home-and-garden memoir.” For me, the genre began with Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. (And, for the record, I want to state that I discovered Mayles’ beloved Cortona even before her book was published.) My life’s narrative, and fantasy, hasn’t been “happily-ever-after.” It’s been “escape-to-my-own-private-villa-out-in-the-country.” Hence, my weekends retreating to Dancing Red Ranch in Wimberley, where my husband and I endlessly plan, plant, maintain, and reconstruct.

Since Under the Tuscan Sun, I’ve read every variation I could get my hands on, including (and especially) those I’ve discovered and purchased while on trips around the world. My life always feels especially open to the fantastic when I’m in another country. And (aghast!) I don’t even mind if the books are poorly written.

Then, of course, somewhere along the way I discovered the grand dame of the genre, May Sarton. I worked my way from Journal of a Solitude back to Plant Dreaming Deep and then on to The House by the Sea. As an author, Sarton found her metier (and her voice) in the journal form, and she imbued her house-and-garden meditations with extraordinary depth of soul. I return regularly to these books, as others would to scripture. They offer me the opportunity to refresh the clarity of existence that I seek.

When Margaret Roach finally ditched her high-flying New York City corporate career for a full-time place in the country, she was seeking “peace and clarity.” She titled her book And I Shall Have Some Peace There (a quotation from Yeats).

Roach deals head-on and full-force with the inevitable uncertainty and anxiety of transition. No romanticizing “the house in the country” here. And the ultimate irony is that Roach took a lot of years to realize her fantasy of a life amidst nature. It took her that long to quit her position as–wait for it–editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. The pull of status, identity, and money at the homemaking guru’s empire kept Roach from taking her Martha-style Do-Over! as soon as she wanted.

And that’s what the book is really about. It’s an interrogation of identity. As Roach repeatedly asks, “Who am I if I am not mroach@marthastewart dot com any longer?” Who are we if we refuse to identify with our job titles?

“I think that I am settling in, and that the awareness of that is causing a little rattling way inside: In memorium, RIP Margaret Roach, EVP; thirty-two-year career girl, onetime success, age fifty-three when last seen or heard from. I am not surprised that this is where I find myself, really–single and in near silence, staring out a window. But what’s the next step?”

“Am I a has-been,” Roach asks. “I prefer to think I am an about-to-be.”

Roach analyzes the sloth that arrives along with this suspension in-between. (I’m always suspicious of those people who never acknowledge their inner sloth. Despite your objections, it’s there, just waiting for the right moment to slither forth . . . ) Ever the naturalist, Roach invokes the notion of “diapause,” an entomological term that explains this “dynamic state of low activity.”

Roach endures this uncomfortable, alien state and discovers nature, and herself, in the process: “These days, newness does not derive from drama around ‘the other,’ but from the conversation with self, from merely sitting quietly and bearing witness.”

Have you done your 15 minutes of nothing today?

(Would you like to spend an afternoon with nature in the TX Hill Country? Join my mini-retreat for women on Saturday, April 2. Click here for details.)

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