Pasadena Field Trip Part 1: Arts and Crafts, Hiroshige, Chinese garden

The Slow Love Tour wends its way through dappled forests--I feel like a shy animal forced into the light for a performance, but if I do it well, I will be allowed to return to the shadows, where I can rest...I'm going anywhere I have friends and family offerings of guest beds, sofas, or mattresses on the floor. It is one thing to sit in pajamas, writing your heart out, and quite another to put on a dress and stand before an audience and read aloud. However, I enjoy hearing how people respond, what touches them. In LA I gave a lecture on behalf of the excellent and worthy Garden Conservancy--and visited our hostess, designer Nancy Power, at her own house and garden. I've always admired her work, but even though I had seen pictures of it, I was unprepared for the beauty and sensuality and charm of her home. She published a book of her work last year, The Power of Gardens; it is full of inspiring ideas. I didn't whip my camera out in the middle of dinner, though it was hard to resist. There were so many moments I wanted to capture, traces of her well-lived life.

Then I went to Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena, southern California's largest and oldest independent bookseller. Happily, much of my tour involves independent bookstores, and it has been a pleasure to see how they have anchored themselves in their towns, engaged with what their readers want, and reached out to make themselves a vital part of the local conversations that weave their way through the community. At Vroman's I met my son Theo's piano teacher, Julie, from Pitzer College; she has been one of the most important people in his life during these years. I also met a lovely friend of Theo's, Terri, who drove over for the event. And I was also reunited with Tom Goff, one of my first--and most generous and helpful--bosses at Esquire. I have been thinking about how much pleasure it gives me to catch up with people from my past, and now I'm thinking how lovely to catch a glimpse of the people in my children's lives.

Continuing my life theme of taking field trips whenever possible, Diane, my sister-in-law, my nephew Dexter, and I decided to explore Pasadena (and avoid getting caught in afternoon traffic from LA.) Diane took an afternoon off from work--Hurray! Slow Love Hookey! I can't emphasize enough how important it is to refresh one's spirit by breaking out of routine, from time to time, either using a vacation day judiciously--or using a lunch hour to go to a museum exhibit. Slow love need not come at the expense of a busy, productive, engaged and even fast life. Most of us are moving quickly, and must, in order to make a living. But if you don't give yourself a chance to recharge by taking in the small miracles all around, the fast pace can--will-- burn out the motor. So I'll take you on my field trip; it seems the least I can do to thank you for visiting Slow Love Life--and if it gives you a bit of refreshment as well, all the better!

We started at the Gamble House, designed in 1908 (for a member of the family that founded Proctor and Gamble) by the Arts and Crafts architectural team of Greene and Greene. It is a gem; everything, down to the hinges and doorknobs and light fixtures and scrollwork on the headboards, was created by the architects. It must have been like living in a beautiful wooden jewel case. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the house--an annoying, but constantly arising, policy. Luckily, Photo director Lucy Gilmour and I included the house in a book that Assouline will publish in September called Living Architecture: Great Houses of the Twentieth Century. House tours always trigger my decorating fantasies. Sometimes I feel as if I were a sponge, absorbing any visual world I find myself in--and wanting to bathe in it. My tastes are promiscuous. But you can call them eclectic. That sounds more polite.

Then we visited a dazzling show of Japanese prints at the Simon Norton museum. The show featured primarily the work of Hiroshige, an artist in the ukiyo-e tradition. His pictures of a "floating world" captured an impermanent, evanescent beauty, one enjoyed in moments divorced from the responsibilities of the mundane, everyday world. (The photo is from the Huntington visit below, but the tea ceremony is also a ritual of the floating world...) I had just finished reading a very good novel, Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, about the life-altering love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and one of his clients; it ended tragically when a lunatic servant went on a murderous rampage. The novel covers the period during which Wright collected thousands of Japanese woodblock prints; while he was designing the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, he was combing the ateliers of print dealers and artists, finding treasures, and returning with them to the US where he sold them to a Boston dealer. It seems as though he actually made more money selling art, for a while, than he did designing buildings, but the affair had been scandalous,  and Wright was shunned by the Oak Park, Illinois community for a while. I had never seen Hiroshige's work in person, only reproduced in books, which cannot catch the rich hues and the details of ink on block.

We had museum fatigue; I don't know why, but walking slowly is exhausting. So we went to the gardens at the Huntington Library, thinking we could take Dexter off his leash (so to speak--small boys and girls have that animal energy) and let him run freely. We felt the same way--in need of a walk. We wandered around aimlessly, and reached a part that had been under construction last time I had visited several years ago. It is a new Chinese garden, spanning five acres, called The Garden of Flowing Fragrance.

This garden includes a lake, seven pavilions, a teahouse and tea shop, and five stone bridges, built by more than 60 Suzhou artisans from authentic materials shipped over from China. The garden includes "poetic views".

Water flows through it, coursing over chiseled stone and under cast stone bridges, catching the light and bubbling merrily.

The flooring of the largest pavilion was laid down in a gorgeous pattern that combined rounded stones and lengths of slate; the garden was filled with inspiration to take home. Phase One of the Garden of Flowing Fragrance is complete; eventually, the garden will cover twelve acres. The name alone is seductive. I thought about how, when I was thinking about selling my house in the suburbs, I began to refer to it in conversation with my children as the Museum of My Happiest Moments. Now I realize where I got the idea of these kinds of titles: from reading Chinese poetry. These sorts of names have an incantatory feel. What an exciting treasure the Garden of Flowing Fragrance is, well worth a visit from anywhere in the country.

The Japanese gardens nearby are also extensive; a stroll takes you through a clacking bamboo forest, past a fully furnished Japanese house that the Huntington family had purchased, moved to California, and installed on their grounds in the early 1900s. Quite a souvenir.

Then we tried to sit and gaze at the raked pebbles of a Zen garden, whose patterns represent the movement of water around rocky island outcroppings. But it takes a long time to settle into the beauty of a Zen garden, and we were not able to do it justice, given that we were constantly being warned of the imminent closing time. Drink up, now! Well, to be honest, even if I had had several hours in front of me, I would have found it difficult to lose myself in the Zen garden.

My mind registers these things: Pebbles. Rakes. Patterns. Next. Then it goes: Why did they choose those particular rocks? How do they make their lines so straight? How is it that their circles are perfect? Who exactly tends this garden? Then: Why can't I sit still long enough to perceive the beauty of such a display? Why can I not empty my mind enough to feel the movement of waves, the plash against stone, the pull of the currents? How do they keep dead leaves off this ocean? Why must everything come back to housekeeping? Oh dear. I am not advanced enough for deep Zen appreciation.

The gardens close at 4:30, way too early, in my humble opinion. I kept thinking about how that made it unavailable, during the week, to people who must work all day--and who might stop during the commute home, to catch the sunset. We retraced our steps through the bamboo forest, admired the litter of leaves on its floor, and returned, refreshed, from global travels a mere car ride away from home.


dterrydraw said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

Please don't waste too much time berating yourself over an inability to "empty" yourself so as to fully appreciate zen gardens.

Please-please go to the following video, and know that you are not alone.

go to:

(our favorite line is "I don't have no incense...will 'Febreeze' work?")

Advisedly yours as ever,

David Terry

P.S. For at least one obvious reason, I went full-tilt on a Bonsai craze in my early adolescence. By the time I'd returned from my first year in college, the trees had all died, and my Tennessee grandmother had appropriated most of the pots for ashtrays on the back porch. Howz that for cultural sensitivity and aesthetic ecumenicism?

Anonymous said...

I love the accommodating signs in so many English parks and gardens:"Gates close at sunset".

Anonymous said...

...and thank you David Terry for introducing me to Betty Butterfield! About Unitarians: "Half of 'em is witches, half of 'em is atheists, and the other half don't believe nothin'." - love it!

Anonymous said...

A wonderful day indeed. A week ago I also visited the Huntington Gardens. They have the best gift shop. Also, the Asian Pacific museum is wonderful as well.

C said...

Such a peaceful setting, japanese gardens. I don't know that much about them, but i do know the feeling they give me - Zen or not, I love the simplicity and complexity in all of them.

Like you, my mind wanders, and I ask many of the questions you ask... but I believe I do not want the answers. I rather just enjoy the tranquil feeling.

Thanks for posting these photos, they are as close as I get to the real thing.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I've always longed to visit Gamble House. I've loved the pictures of the place and look forward to seeing it featured in the new book. I feel the same about my wanderings through famous houses - they inspire decorating ideas like nothing else. My head almost explodes in Leighton House in London. That indoor fountain sets me spinning every time.

I do love the flooring design you've shown. I'd love to turn it into a knitting pattern.

Paul L. Martin said...

Ms. Browning, my wife and I were at your reading at Vroman's. I wrote about the experience, and our own difficulties as teachers who have lost their jobs in the last few weeks on my blog, The Teacher's View: http://plmartinwrite.blogspot.com.

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, and we will continue to read and follow your work.

Take care

Cristina said...

...such a great feeling of peace and quiet does arise from all these beautiful places you're kindly showing us. thanks so much!

Dominique said...

I love the idea of making that floor pattern into a knitting pattern...! wonderful, please let us know how it works. I'll have to ask my sister Nicole, champion knitter, to see if she can do the same thing! thanks. d

Anonymous said...

The Chinese garden at the Huntington sounds much like a Chinese Scholar's Garden. There are two in the US, one in Portland and one on Staten Island. The gardens incorporate all the elements at the Huntington with the exception being that a scholar's garden is part of en enclosed house.

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