Thursday, April 17, 2014

April's Book: The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

Shortly before I fell and broke my ankle, I had ordered a replacement copy of a book I loved reading the first time around and wanted to reread. I have no idea what happened to my original copy. No doubt I have loaned it to someone, for I can't imagine deliberately choosing to purge it from our bookshelves. Not only is it a beautifully designed book with full color illustrations, it is also extremely well-written and inspiring. A treasure of a book. 

How happy I was with the companionship of this book during the beginning days of my unexpected confinement. In fact, The Paper Garden, Mrs Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72 by Molly Peacock is another example of the "Right Book at the Right Time."

Written by the Canadian poet Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden is the true story of Englishwoman Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788) who as a young woman of 17 was married off to a drunken 61 one year old, in order to improve her family's economic situation. When he died, she still had her whole life in front of her and eventually married a man who was truly the love of her life, a man who appreciated and supported her charm and intelligence, along with her many creative talents. After being married for 23 years, her beloved husband died, and she was submerged in grief.

Discovering One's Life's Work
However, this is when Mary Delany finds new purpose in her life.

Just at the point where she was re-emerging from her deep mourning and returning to patterns and habits that had sustained and enhanced her all her life, such as embroidering and walking, she suffered an insect bite on her foot and needed to be immobile for quite some time. During this time of confinement, supported by  her gifts of observation, her love of nature and beauty, and her ability to use her hands, she picked up her scissors and created a new art form, mixed-media collage. She was 72 years of age. Over the course of the next 10 years Mary Delany created almost 1000 botanically correct paper flower portraits, which are now housed in the British Museum and are known as the Flora Danica. If I ever return to England, I sincerely hope to see these masterpieces in person.

Why does this seem like the right book at the right time for me? Well, I am no Mary Delany and in fact, I am not good at doing handwork of any kind nor have I been in a time of grief, but here I am physically limited just at a time when I thought I could return to work I love to do and feel I have been called to do. Right before my accident, I felt a resurgence of energy, of creativity, of joy as I began to discover how to honor this stage of my life. 

Whoops--time out! Full stop! At least that's the way it has felt in my lowest moments, but then I think of Mary Delany, who at age 72 discovered her life's work. I'm just 66, I say to myself. I have all sorts of time to plunge myself into my life's work! Or perhaps it is now in this time of healing and resting and restoring, and easing into quiet that I open to work I have been preparing myself to do all my life.

The Sum of All We Do
Peacock says, "Some things take living long enough to do." She summarizes the living Delany did before settling into her true life's work.
          It evolved, first from silhouettes, and then from
          handiwork and collecting shells and designing shell
          grottoes, and then designing her dresses, and then
          from drawing and painting and gardening, and from
          being supported in her enthusiasms by her sister and
          her husband, and lastly from not being able to paint,
          from a feeling of the world dimming, and from the
          energy of the natural world and the way she was
          supported by a friend.   p. 343

It's not that any of these previous interests and experiences were unimportant. Quite the contrary, for as Peacock quotes the poet Charles Bukowski, "Age is the sum of all we do." 

Peacock continues:
          That's a bit of what happens to a plant, too. It keeps
          adding up until it blooms, but even after blooming,
          after mid-life, so to speak, it keeps going, because
          it has to start withering. Only in the drying does the
          real fertility begin, the seedcase forming, and only
          then are the seeds available to be blown apart and
          travel and settle. The fierce winter of dormancy is
          part of it all…   p. 343.

Opening to What May Yet Come
This past week I have re-opened a notebook with the beginnings of a big writing project I started a year ago. Life intervened in ongoing ways and the notebook was set aside. Waiting to be rediscovered? Waiting for a time of dormancy?  I am actually quite surprised by the amount of effort I have put into it already and also by how much appeal and interest this material still holds for me. My life's work? That feels premature and presumptuous, but on the other hand as I age, I begin to understand the themes in my life, the context of my life, and this project not only explores them, but could help others in their own explorations.  

Mary Delany's legacy is not only the gorgeous flower portraits she created, but also her example that one's life's work evolves and can continue to be fertile and life-giving. 

Yes, the right book at the right time. 

An Invitation
I am always interested in knowing about "right books at the right time." What books have been that for you? Or people or events? How is your life's work being revealed to you right now even as you come to the end of your work life? I would love to know.



  1. In August I expect to be heading off to Slovakia (Bratislava), furthering my life, at age 65, living abroad, teaching English as a foreign language.

    gebengtson--St Paul, the new Minneapolis

  2. Bravo!!!!!! I am so excited for you!


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