My Garden Milieu

I am ready to welcome guests to our farm for our daughter Claire’s wedding in June. Everyone sat at one long table.

He scared me the first time he called me out of his class. With this coke-bottle-thick glasses and booming English accent, I thought I had really bombed on the creative essay Professor Jack Morpurgo ordered. But no, he had something else in mind. He told me that I had talent. (He enjoyed my description of living in rural Tennessee no less!) He said that I was a writer, horrible grammar notwithstanding. He wanted to take me aside and critique my writing more harshly. He also admitted that he and his elderly wife, Catherine, were in need of someone to drive them about Nashville. As a visiting professor from Leeds University who was nearly blind and a wife crippled with arthritis, they were also very lonely.

Thus began our friendship. Drives to appointments led to dinners at their house. They were starved for the sort of young attention that they received in Leeds from students. Once they left for England, Jack wrote to me within a year and invited me to come and spend the summer working for them. He was retiring from Leeds and moving his 2,000 book Penguin library to their Mews house in London.

I was chauffeur, housekeeper, cook, shopper, and personal librarian. Jack wasn’t kidding about his Penguin paperbacks; they lined the walls of every room in the house, even bedrooms. I knew that he was an editor at Penguin and that his daughter-in-law was the goddaughter of Agatha Christie, but I only discovered recently the rest of the story. Jack and the founder of Penguin, Alan Lane, were famous feuders throughout his tenure at Penguin. The two just couldn’t get along. But, they were held together by a strong link that neither could separate: Alan’s daughter married Jack’s son, Michael, author of children’s books including War Horse.

So, where did the Morpurgos take me? Well, Catherine was a stage actress in Stratford-Upon-Avon when Jack first saw her and said, “That woman will be my wife.” Never mind that she was married with two small boys. His will must have been powerful, because she became his wife, and he adopted both boys before having two more children with Catherine. She wanted me to experience the stage, so they took me to the Haymarket Theatre to see Heartbreak House starring Rex Harrison.

At night, I was homesick, so I stole down to the small television set in the parlor to catch late night re-runs of Dallas. I craved Anything American! Jack would not hear of my watching such bunk, so he usually sat with me over tea in the late afternoons and evenings and challenged me to get out and discover who I was. “Go to Hyde Park to listen to politicians on Speaker’s Corner!” he demanded. “Then tell me which side closely resembles your own political views.” I complied, but I began to hate him for his challenges. I wanted to walk the streets of Chelsea and see the punks, not listen to politicians!

One weekend, Jack and Kippe (the familial reference to Catherine, pronounced Kipp-er) took me to Canterbury, another of Jack’s favorite literary haunts. I was quite moved by the cathedral as well as the lovely southern setting. I touched the stone on the building and marveled at its antiquity. I longed to live in such a magical world and wondered why places so quaint are hard to find in America. We visited Margery Allingham’s sister, Joyce, for lunch in her garden somewhere near Canterbury. This visit, with its customary conversation over tea after lunch, changed my mode of thinking forever. “I shall tell you of this garden,” Joyce declared as I walked through paths and touched her somewhat unkempt flowers. “You will understand why I treasure it even after I cannot keep it up.”

Then she told me. She held me enrapt with stories of Agatha, Margery, and Patrick (Allingham) and their literary, artistic, and political friends who gathered there and shared a camaraderie that only creative types can understand. I immediately thought of Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. He, along with his famous contemporaries, created the same milieu. I could only imagine their conversations.

I was twenty years old when I began the dream of having a garden and inviting my friends to join me for conversations and camaraderie. Even after creating said garden, I hoped. Over time, though, I lost faith. Certainly I had many friends to come here for entertainment, but non were interested in artistic and creative conversations. Not a one. I began researching retreats and wondered if I could host one of those. Then I discovered that such ventures are actually business opportunities, not just friendly writers’ gatherings. One writer said, “Never share your unpublished books with other writers! Someone might steal your ideas!” That information just makes me sad, while admitting this shows my naivité.

Loneliness set in. Not for friendships, per se, but for writing relationships and friendships combined. I cursed Funny Farm for its idealistic view of country folk and small town settings. I knew the main characters could not survive without the very thing I needed to sustain my writing. Still I wrote and gardened and loved my life. I decided that I could make it on my own. After all, I had a husband who would brainstorm chapters and conversations. He was my rock and my support. My children and family too.

Then I opened myself to other writers, first at SheWrites and later with some of the same writers on Facebook. I discovered a milieu of women scattered across the country who shared my openness. These amazing women are me! They are black and white, published and non-published. They feel! They send good vibes and wishes and prayers. They actually love! They are unafraid to share their feelings, non judgmental and always kind. This is not exactly what I dreamed for so many years, but then it really is. For we do gather and share and create. The setting is just online instead of in my garden. But it is a view that I now embrace and love and depend on for nurturing my thirsty creative soul. Thank you, my lovely writer friends, especially those in A Purely Accidental Writer’s Group. Someday, somehow, I will figure out how to get us together in body as well as in spirit.

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  1. 1
    kristine

    well done…and can I just say that you are wise and courageous and absolutely on the right track. fear is a mighty obstacle, but one that deserves to be challenged. I find that just one step in the direction I am wanting to go gets me safely past fear that would otherwise stop me in my tracks. Can you imagine (please do) if we all got together for a gathering? Sparks would fly!

  2. 2
    Emily

    Thank you, Kristine! I feel vulnerable as I reveal such fear, but if nothing else, I am an honest person. You and our online friends have brought be out of my proverbial shell, and I feel very liberated right now! I appreciate your friendship very much! And I can only imagine the fun! I have faith it will happen!

  3. 3
    Lori Landau

    The road to being a writer is a long, unique and interesting one, and one that has changed quite a bit over the years. Finding a supportive group of like-minded people who are willing to open their hearts and use their voices to encourage, share and cheer on other group members is not only rare but it’s become easier thanks to platforms like facebook, which allows writers to connect to other writers all over the world. I’m glad to have purely by accident ended up in this one……..

  4. 4
    Emily

    So am I Lori! Boy was I embarrassed when I put people together without their permission. I was also sad that a few that I included opted out without a word. I guess they represented my first forays into reaching out. They just didn’t really want or have time to share. I have learned so much from ya’ll and truly appreciate your kindnesses.

  5. 6
    Jenne' Andrews

    Emily– forgive me for not reading your work any sooner, when you have so kindly commented on my postings and been so encouraging.

    This is a wonderful story. You are not alone in longing for a community of like-minded people; my version of the garden is the wonderful environment of a seaside cafe in another country downstairs from my little villa, with other expat writers as well as locals.

    I’ve also very much wanted to be in a position to buy an old farm and build individual cabins on it for single/alone marginalized women writers for the simple reason that aging is difficult and companionship and support so vital.

    But in my solitude, which is grueling loneliness on some days, I have had to plunge into my work. In four years I’ve produced five collections of poetry, 300 blog posts, a memoir and a novel. After trying the memoir on an agent, I posted it in its entirety online hoping for the best regarding copyright violation. I spent hours creating a beautiful blog and micromanaging the order of the chapters which entailed reversing the order of the blog posts. I was on She Writes for a time, but found it too problematic to write as myself there, and via Facebook I have reconnected to the Minnesota literary community I had the good luck to be part of for most of the 70’s. I’ll get back to you….a beautiful post. xxj

  6. 7
    Emily

    Thank you Chandra. Someday you will. By the way, I told Kerry about your goats and wondered if we needed some livestock. I am actually thinking about sheep because I love to knit & crochet. Now, I don’t know if I could actually raise, sheer, spin, and then knit, but it’s a nice thought anyway.

  7. 9
    Emily

    Jenne, I too, dream of the cabins! I have actually considered buying an old homeplace from my cousin and moving it here for that very purpose. Someday I will. I tried SheWrites too and still go there occasionally. I just thought it too stilted and not really open enough. To tell you the truth, I was a bit turned away when you said something spirited there and were chastised for it. You ended up backtracking and apologizing for offending somebody or speaking out of turn or something. I felt for you and realized the forum was not what I was looking for with openness & acceptance. (I don’t remember, but I hope I defended you!) It does have a terrific place, and heck, I wouldn’t have found most of my dear writer friends without it. But I like our FB forum much better. I have been to your blog and read your posts. You are very insightful. Thanks for reading mine and commenting!

  8. 10
    Madgew

    Emily, beautifully sad. I will discuss art with you any day. I am just waiting for my art teacher to come for my lesson. I was raised on art by my parents who had a big collection and took us to art museums all over the world. Art is living and breathing and by sharing your thoughts you are an artist.

  9. 11
    hannah kozak

    Wonderful post. When I read “200 book penguin library”, I wanted to hear more about this important relationship. Thank you for sharing this. My closest, dearest friend has always had dreams of a community where we support and love one another. Yes, Facebook and SheWrites has brought many of us together but like my friend, I still wish we could spend more time face to face rather than on line. The beauty of Facebook is it shows me how the time spent together is even more important than ever before.

  10. 13
    Emily

    Madge, art (especially history), writing, and politics are the things I carry strongest with me from college. My parents didn’t collect or take us to museums, but they gave us an appreciation for self-exploration and independent thought. They also loved classical music. I started going to museums on that trip to England. I have been to several across the country as well as London. I did have the pleasure of seeing Luncheon. Glad to know you love art too! Thanks for visiting and reading!

  11. 14
    Emily

    Hannah, I love that you visited me here too! Thanks! I guess I needed to get that story out so that ya’ll could understand. I have much more to write about Jack & Kippe Morpurgo. I am still in contact with their daughter, Kay, who has remained my lifelong friend since I worked for her parents. Hers is another story I would have to get permission to tell. She, too, was studying to become an actress like her mother. Then, during rehearsals onstage, someone pulled a chair out from under her, breaking her back with the fall. She has been in and out of a wheelchair ever since. When she took me around the country, we brought her chair along. We strapped her youngest baby to her and off we went. I hope sometime I will be able to write more about her.

  12. 16
    Cheryl Moseley

    Absolutely beautiful, Emily. I have been wanting to read this for a few days, as it sat opened on my desktop. I have so much to say about this, and my gratitude for having you in my life, as well. I love the group, and look forward to being able to spend more time with all of you.

  13. 17
    Emily

    You are very kind, Cheryl. I appreciate your taking the time to read my post and to comment. I love the group as well, and I hope to be able to bring you here someday.

  14. 18
    Jillian Coleman Wheeler

    Thank you, Emily, for a wonderful article! I think many of us write in solitude, and long for a real creative community. Fortunately, I have friends who are writers and painters, but still, I often thing there should be something more.

  15. 19
    Emily

    Thank you Jillian! Glad you came to my blog and contributed. I love hearing from fellow writers. It gives me such a community spirit. Stay in touch. I hope we can all meet sometime!

  16. 20
    Susanne

    Mama is not a writer, but a creative spirit as large as her garden itself. I couldn’t help but think of her as you described the woman that you met in England. It’s the unkempt gardens in life that give us the impetus to go out and weed our own.

  17. 21
    Emily

    You know your Mama is written about in one or so of my garden posts. I can’t remember which one(s) at the moment though. I am convinced that she, and you in turn, were the guiding forces behind my creativity. My memories are huge with you both inspiring me. I want you to come out and see your Mama’s flowers and plants as they grow this season. I think they will all be very beautiful earlier than usual. Remember that I will always share them right back with you too when you are ready! Much, much love!

    You are an excellent writer yourself!

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