Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Books That Changed My Life: Part Three

Last weekend I paid a visit to the New York Botanical Gardens with some friends from church. It was a hot, humid day in the city, and some of the plants were drooping from the heat as much as I was. We originally went to see the "Darwin's Garden" exhibit, but ended up touring the whole garden itself.
The Darwin exhibit was in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a wonderful greenhouse that has so many levels of climate control. In one greenhouse, you can find such plants as these:

Gorgeous palm trees

I have no idea what these are, but they're gorgeous

Cacti in bloom

And then I found myself gazing at these beauties:

Water lilies. I have loved these flowers ever since I first learned about Claude Monet and his wonderful water lily paintings, "Les Nympheas." I marvel at how something so simple could be painted in such a sophisticated fashion. Monet was able to capture the different color variations and layers of petals in every single flower. No two water lilies were alike.

And as I took picture after picture of these beautiful flowers, a name popped in my head.


Linnea in Monet's Garden.

It was kind of bizarre how I was suddenly transported back to that book just by looking at the water lilies. And then the floodgate of memories opened.

It was the end of my freshman year of high school, and it was awards night. I won a special prize in French that night, and as I climbed the steps up to the stage, my high school principal hands me this blue and white plaid bag with a lace ribbon tied to the handles. "What could this be?" I wondered. This seemed to be a most unusual award, given that the majority of awards that night were either plaques or certificates.

I carried the bag to the cafeteria for the post-ceremony reception, and was prodded by my two best friends to open it. I untied the lace ribbon, carefully removed the layers of tissue paper that laid at the top of the bag, and pulled out a colorful book and a little doll.

That book? Linnea in Monet's Garden. My friend Monica's eyes lit up. She had owned this story when she was younger and adored it. The little doll that was in the bag was Linnea herself.

I opened the book, and my French teacher had written a personal inscription inside the cover. I won't share with you what she wrote because: A), it was written in French; and B) it's too precious for me to share publicly. Needless to say, I was very touched. It is very rare to find a teacher that cares so much about his or her students, and I knew that my French teacher, Mrs. Keenan, was one of those teachers.

I read the book as soon as I got home. It was my first exposure to Claude Monet's work, and I immediately fell in love. This simple story told of Claude Monet's life and work, triumphs and tragedies, and importance in the art world. Linnea, a little girl who was around eight or nine years old, travels with her neighbor to Paris and then to Monet's house at Giverny. She tells the story as if you're looking at your best friend's scrapbook; there are pictures of matchbook covers, pressed leaves, and postcards in there. Linnea was just like me: a packrat who saved mementos of EVERYTHING.

The child's perspective did an excellent job of explaining impressionist painting to the novice. Linnea puts a picture of one of Monet's water lily paintings in her scrapbook, then shows a close up view of one of the flowers. She was able to show how something that looked like a blob up close could be a thing of beauty from far away. And she didn't limit Monet's work to just the water lilies; she included paintings of the Chartres cathedral, the haystacks, and most famously, the Japanese bridge in Monet's garden at Giverny.

Earlier my freshman year, I became so captivated, so passionate about French, that I decided to save my pennies for a trip to France my senior year. After finishing Linnea in Monet's Garden, I made another important decision.

I had to get to Giverny.

My chance didn't come until my junior year of college, when I studied in Paris for a semester. When I got to the city, I immediately sought information on how to get to Giverny. It was the beginning of September, and I learned that the garden would close for the season after the first weekend of October.

If I had to get there, I had to do it yesterday. I rounded up a group of seven girls who were in the same study abroad program and convinced them to go with me. A couple of girls protested, saying that the flowers would not be in bloom in October, but I had a "It's now or never" attitude like I never had before.

We went that first weekend of October. While nothing was really in bloom, everything was still green and lovely. The house was gorgeous and painstakingly restored. The kitchen alone is exquisite, with its copper pots and blue and white tile lining the walls. There were flower plants, ivy, and lush green trees everywhere on the property.

And finally, we reached the Japanese bridge. There were still a couple of water lilies in the pond, but not too many. By the time we reached the bridge, all eight of us in the group were taking turns posing on the bridge and switching cameras so we could all get pictures to send home. I look at my picture today and still can't believe I made it to Monet's garden.

Before we left Giverny, we all went to the gift shop to buy souvenirs. I bought several postcards to send back to the States. On one of them, addressed to my high school French teacher, I simply wrote:


I didn't sign it. I figured she'd know who wrote it.

It seems like I've been writing a lot about my high school days lately, which is funny, given that it's been 14 years since I graduated. I didn't realize until now just how much high school, especially the first two years, shaped my life and continues to influence me today. I didn't think much about my high school days until I started writing this blog. It's been quite therapeutic for me.

My friend Brian, who fronts the band Talking to Walls (see Links of Note for info), says that music is therapy. Well, I agree with him, but you need to write the lyrics in order to have the song most days. So I say, writing is therapy.

That oughta be a bumper sticker: Writing is Therapy. And I could put my blog's address on it...ooohhhh, merchandising!!!!

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