Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Does Flower Arranging Make Me a Dilettante?

Alternative titles for this topic included:

My Life as a Character in an Edith Wharton Novel
Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all you know on Earth, and all you need to know.

You will notice that I went for the most self-deprecating version; as is my wont.

Today I went to a class to learn how to arrange spring flowers. When I entered the sunlit room, I was overwhelmed by the profusion of flowers: lots of juicy orange and vivid purple colors; beautiful pale green and cream roses that looked as if they were blushing; acid yellow rananculus; pussy willow, with its fat, silky catkins; fragrant mimosa; flowering branches of blossoms, pink and white; and frilled "parrot" tulips straight out of Dutch still-life. It was glorious; breathtaking, really. It made me feel giddy and joyous. And a bit decadent, too, because what says privileged lady who lunches more than a day in a flower shop -- learning to make one's own hand-tied posy?

When a friend asked me what I was doing today, I admitted -- perhaps with a slight shamefacedness -- that I was going to take a flower arranging class. Well, this woman (fellow American; former New Yorker) looked at me, aghast, and replied: "I would never do something like that! It would just confirm my worst fear: that I'm nothing but a dilettante." Of course I just laughed. (Of course I also thought: Honey, give it up -- you are a dilettante.) But the remark did give me pause.

In the past week I've been working on applying for a teaching job, and I'm not entirely sure that I want to. Most people go out to work because they need to make some money. But if you take money out of the equation -- and with teaching, you might as well -- you have to question why you are doing such a thing. Do I really want to trade my delicious bits of leisure time -- time to read and write and gather my rosebuds -- in order to grade another batch of disappointing juvenile papers? What will I lose? What will I gain?

In the past week I have been given a compliment, been asked a question, and been pierced by a criticism.
The compliment: we were out with some friends, and the mother/wife/full-time employed person told me that her children had voted mine the "homiest" house that they knew. I think this had something to do with the fact that I make my own "biscuits;" apparently, this is somewhat unusual in the houses they frequent. At any rate, they like to come over and hang out here; and I must admit that the hostessy part of me was touched by this vote of confidence -- no matter how narrow the field of competition.
The question: a very dear friend, she who first dubbed me Bee Drunken, asked me if I liked being a stay-at-home Mom. At one time, this friend and I were students together at Queen Mary College -- part of the University of London. She went on to be a journalist in New York City, while I went on to be the youngest mom of my cohort, move 13 times, and work sporadically as a teacher.
The criticism: when asked if she had read my blog about reading, my mother confessed that she had never looked at my blog -- and furthermore, that she considered it a waste of time that could be better used on "proper" writing.

One more anecdote, and then I will try to get to a point:
Not so long ago, my children -- tired and washed out from a long weekend -- told me how lucky I was that I didn't have to "work" or actually do anything. When I sputtered indignantly about having to go home and clean our house (a "tip" as the English say, after a long weekend of houseguests and slobbery), and do laundry, and grocery shop, and cook, etcetera --
my daughter replied, somewhat disdainfully, that people who work full-time have to do all of those things anyway. It was a pretty debate-worthy retort, actually; and while I could have argued that full-time working mothers often hire people to do their domestic duties it would have been just an avoidance of a certain truth. Once your children are at school, is there really any justification to be a stay-at-home mom?

But who's going to let in the workmen when something goes wrong in the house? In a 200 yr old house this is not an idle question -- but rather a need that arises on a nearly weekly basis.
But who's going to take the children to the dentist? (My youngest daughter got kicked in the mouth by a horse recently and has a more or less standing appointment at the dentist. But that's another story.)
But who's going to be the one who brings beauty and calm into our house?

I have been a full-time working mom, and furthermore, nearly a single one as well -- when Sigmund recently spent 18 months working and living in Holland. It wasn't quite Edvard Munch's "The Scream," but then I do remember the constant background whine of our lives as being: "Mommy is Sooooo Tired." The truth is, when I am not working full-time outside of our home, I am much more likely to want to work inside of our home. I cook more; I don't mind if a child wants to stir the risotto; I make risotto, for that matter; I throw parties and invite people over for the weekend; I plant baskets of flowers and herbs; I recycle -- everything; I am more likely to send a birthday card or a funny just-because-I-am-thinking-of-you card; I don't complain (as much) about ferrying children around; I am more likely to read a bedtime story; I am more likely to be patient with children; I am more likely to be smiling.

Since I live with a person who works long hours, and is not genetically inclined to good cheer, and since I also live with a teenager, it is my job to be in a good mood. If I am in a good mood, there is a better chance that everyone will be a good mood. Is this an equation, or just a corollary?

On the other hand, there is the fact that I was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" (what a poisoned chalice) in high school -- and "Most Outstanding Student" in graduate school. What part talent, what part ambition, what part hard work? Any part fluke?

Is aiming for domestic beauty and happiness too trifling a goal?

Tonight there was a beautiful bouquet of tulips, and roses, and mimosa, and rananculus on the dinner table. There were homemade biscuits; there were homemade lemon cookies. Do these things really enrich my family's lives, or my own, or am I just -- in the final accounting -- a dabbler?

But if you don't have to go out and slave for a wage are you a fool to do so? Are we a generation too devoted to the idea of Work?

I am turning these questions over in my mind tonight. I am listening to The Story sing "The Angel in the House." I am asking for some input:


Brave Sir Robin said...

If flowers bring you joy, how is the world a worse place because you learned to arrange them in a pleasant manner? I for one would be delighted to arrive home and find a splendid arrangement of flowers on my table. Oscar Wilde knew the answer to whether it’s ok for you to take a flower arranging class my dear Bee, l'art pour l'art .

I think the compliment you were given is one of the nicest things that could be said. Isn’t that the essence of what a home should be? I always want my house to be the place where my kids and their friends hang out. What will they remember years from now? If economics do not dictate that you must work, do what makes you happy. If you are passionate about your work, then by all means, that is what you should do.

Once your children are at school, is there really any justification to be a stay-at-home mom?

As answer, I have an anecdote. My best friend is an Attorney, a very successful one. His wife had a successful career as well. She was not only good at what she did, she enjoyed it. About three years ago, she decided, out of the clear blue sky, that she was going to be a stay at home Mom. We were all a bit shocked, because, as I said, she loved her job, and she is quite a feminist.

Let me tell you, she is the Mother of the year!! She knits, she reads, she runs kids all over town, she cooks, and she and her husband and her kids have never been happier. She still has a housekeeper, (the one thing I envy her for), and she has made raising her kids, and their home her job. It is a rare blessing to have that opportunity, why not take advantage of it?

I am more likely to read a bedtime story; I am more likely to be patient with children; I am more likely to be smiling. Yes, exactly, and so are the people who receive those good acts.

When people are lying on their deathbed, nobody ever says, “I wish I’d spent more time at work”.

Tomorrow, I will work about 11 ½ hours, and miss a track meet. I say good for you. What will my kids remember? That Dad busted his ass to give us the things we wanted, or that he wasn't at the track meet?

As for your Mom, people often criticize what they don’t understand.

Is aiming for domestic beauty and happiness too trifling a goal? See above Oscar Wilde quote.

Well, that’s my 2 cents. (or is that pence?)

Anne said...

This is me furrowing my brow at your friend who was aghast at your learning to arrange flowers. *furrow*

Isn't flower arranging one of the ways Zen Buddhists believe you can achieve Nirvana? I would love to be able to arrange flowers better. What's wrong with learning how? From a book, from an online tutorial, from a class where you actually go and interact with other human beings?

I agree with BSR, it's a wonderful compliment you were given--one I'd love to receive myself. My parents are sort of the same way: lots of cooking goes on in their house, and many of my younger siblings' friends' parents don't cook much... so it's always a treat for them (my siblings' friends) to come over and have homemade applesauce, pizza, pie, jam, waffles, and so on. If I had kids, I'd want them (and their friends) to think my home welcoming, homey, full of good food, and so on.

As for working: I'll just quickly throw one option out there, and then address another one a bit more. The first option: could you work part-time? Either on a set schedule (mornings only, say) or on a flexible one (as a substitute teacher, teaching only a few days here and there)?

Now for staying home. I've never been a mother, stay-at-home or otherwise, so I can't address this from my own experiences. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure that the job of stay-at-home mom (and it is a job) is one of the most underappreciated ones out there, but also one of the most rewarding.

I'm the sort of person who wants her home to be somewhere people want to be: a place of rest after a long day, a welcoming place for guests, and so on... and I enjoy being the person who makes it so. I understand the feeling that one's life is enriched by flowers, homemade biscuits and jam, a nicely made bed, and so on. There's a reason that another term for "stay-at-home mom" is "homemaker," and as far as I'm concerned, that person is immensely valuable.

If you feel that your time is best spent (and if you are happiest) doing things for your family, for your home, to make you contented with your home life--and if your family can afford to be a one income household, which it sounds like you can--then by all means, do exactly that! If, on the other hand, you think you would be better fulfilled by work as a teacher, or what have you, then give that another shot. Whatever you choose, you can always change your mind!

This comment is getting a little too long--I could go on for ages on this topic. But you know, if it comes down to risotto or no risotto... one must have risotto! ;)

Anne said...

Oh, one last comment: you mention that you smile more when you are not working full-time outside the home. That seems like a pretty good sign right there.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Anne seems to have gotten to the heart of the matter very succinctly:

Risotto or no risotto?

I vote for risotto.

Bee said...

Let's start with risotto, which has to be slowly and patiently stirred. Although I did learn recently that you can take it to the half-way point -- leave it for an hour or so -- and then finish it up. Handy info for a dinner party. At Sigmund's recent birthday dinner I stirred and stirred in the kitchen, while I could hear everyone laughing off in the dining room.

Well, it's all about time, isn't it? Brave Sir Robin has talked on this subject many times . . .
Creating beauty takes time, patience and practice (more time); not easy to pull off when you are running around like a headless chicken trying to fill two roles at once.

And yes, Anne, I will try for a part-time job; but with teaching, all the prep and the grading tend to overrun their boundaries. I tend to be overly perfectionistic as well. I'm just afraid really; afraid that I will lose my own time to do the things that make me happy and enrich my life. But next to that is my conflicted feeling that I need to be ACCOMPLISHING something in the wider world.

It is really nice to get your feedback on the importance of "homey" homes. Sometimes the inhabitants of such homes neglect to notice or appreciate the homemaker's efforts. (The term homemaker really needs to be reclaimed, doesn't it?)

Bee said...


You must get a housekeeper!
If I do get a job, that's the first thing I am going to do!

Paranoid said...

What I'm hearing you say is that you're a happier person when you're a SAHM. Assuming your husband is also happy with the arrangement, what could possibly be wrong with that?

Before I had my daughter, I worked hard for years. I loved my career, and have every intention of returning someday. And in the meantime, I will enjoy the heck out of my unhurried days, the luxury to spend hours rolling around on the floor with a toddler, and the sheer joy of seeing sunlight from the actual outdoors, instead of through an office window.

Yes, life is easier now than it ever was before, but why is that a bad thing? Where is it written that one's life must be a straight-line march of hard work for pay, with no time to smell (or arrange) the flowers? When and if you're ready or it becomes necessary, you'll go back to work. In the meantime, I say enjoy what you've got.

k said...

i tagged ya...
details on my blog.

Anne said...

I see what you mean about the perfectionist aspects of teaching (and, well, everything else). And the sky's the limit, really; you can always spend more time going over lesson plans, thinking up new ways of teaching something, and so on. It seems like it could very easily take over all your time!

What about doing more tutoring? It seems like that might give you some of the same satisfaction as teaching while allowing you to retain much of your unstructured time. (I hesitate to use the term "free" time because there always seems to be something that needs doing.)

Alex said...

Here from Chris' blog.

I'm a working mom of a one-year old for whom the simplest, most relaxing part of my day is going to work and doing my job.

Don't get me wrong, I adore my son and the time I spend with him, and I am fortunate that I only work 30 hours/week so have a good amount of time with him. But he's a busy little fellow, and not entirely willing to follow the same schedule every day (go figure). So for me, having some "down" time (i.e. work time, where people ask me to do predictable things, things I am trained to do and supported in doing, at predictable times with clear deadlines) is a huge relief and something that does allow me to focus more of my energies and attention on him when I am with him.

All of which is to say...being a SAHM is not taking the easy way out. If you can do it and want to do it, I say go for it. It would take paying me a lot of money before I'd consent to such a thing myself (of course, that's me) -- and that's certainly not going to happen.

Lucy said...

I love being a dilettante. It was what I was always meant to be. I am largely stay at home and I haven't even got any kids, school age or otherwise, just a husband who at 70 is still working like a navvie to do our house up,(a project of the last 10 years and no small one), and a soppy dog, who may not strictly need the level of care they receive but appreciate it anyway. And quite a few friends who I can be available for. It seems to take up plenty of time. I work a bit because if I didn't I would get very lazy about going out and meeting French people, and what I earn isn't much but pays for vet's bills and holidays. I don't know how full time working mothers do it, though I do know activity expands to fill the time available, nevertheless I think they must lose out on something somewhere.

The 'haven't you got anything better to do?' line on blogging is of course a perpetual irritation. Your mother's loss not yours, though at least she sees writing as worthwhile activity. Your writning enriches my life anyway!

k said...

flower arranging is like hair cutting to me. it looks easy, but when i try it i realize there is an art to it. i think it's wonderful you took a class in it. i'd love to. i guess i'm a proud "dilettante." did you ever see "crush" with andie macdowell? i love anna chancellor's wine swilling dilettante character in that. i wanna be like her.

what grade do you teach? do they call them grades in england?

what a lovely compliment about your homey abode. my favorite compliment ever was when my dear friend jen called my home "welcoming." i didn't even know that i wanted it to be labeled that, but was thrilled when it was.

people are funny about blogs. my friend susan refuses to read mine. she'd rather talk in person about things. but i'm usually blogging at 2 in the morning- does she really want me to call her then? for me, my blog is good cheap therapy. tell your mom that. maybe that will turn her around. she no doubt likes you sane and economical.

how old are your children? i need names and pictures too!

< Once your children are at school, is there really any justification to be a stay-at-home mom?>- hmmmmm... i struggle with this a lot too. i do plan on having more child(ren) though so for now i don't feel too slothful even though my daughter is in school 7 hours a day, 5 days a week. and i don't hire out my cleaning. i actually enjoy cleaning. the few times i have hired someone because i'm in a hurry or something, i've been disappointed by what they've done, or not done.

my mom worked full time and had a cleaner, shopper, ironer, everything-er. i once expressed to her that i felt guilty for not being a feminist like she was and working outside the home. she said something that profoundly touched and affected me. she said that feminism is having the right to choose what you want to do. yes, i'm a mom and a cleaner and a cooker. but i chose this. no one forced me into this.

i'm thinking a lot about women's choices because i just read a fascinating bio on nellie bly. i'm embarrassed i never knew about her before. she's my new favorite person. my new favorite dead person. you are my new favorite person!

ah, the angel in the house. music doesn't get much better than that.

btw, i hate it so much when people congratulate me on being a full-time mom. they mean it that if i was working outside the home i wouldn't be as good a mother. but my mother was a fantastic mother, and to this day is my best friend. i think it's all about what you said- "when I am not working full-time outside of our home, I am much more likely to want to work inside of our home." for my mom, working outside the home made her a better mom. i'm a better mom when i'm not working outisde the home.

Bee said...

Lucy and K and paranoid,

How I love you for your ability to love the life you live and not feel guilty about it! I love it; I glory in it . . . but then I feel like I should wear a hair-shirt. I do not like this side of myself.

Didn't your mother say a kind thing to you about being a feminist? I really agree with that, but then part of me feels like I should do it all (work, mother, wife, friend, homemaker) -- even though I know that I can't . . . especially since I can't function if I haven't spent some time alone every day.

Anyway, my tulips have opened and they are gorgeous. I have an orange parrot tulip (with pale green frills) in a lilac bud vase -- just in front of me now.

Thank you for your lovely words, all of you.

chris said...

I think if you're happier, it doesn't matter. And I think homey homes are important. I think it's also important for a woman to work outside the home if she wants. You'll never get judgment on that issue from me.

My husband's stepmother was the first female in her field in the US. What her son (a famous cancer researcher) remembers though, is that she was never home. Ouch. There's got to be a happy medium, right? I hope I can find it someday.

Please forgive me if I don't do the meme you tagged me for . . . I've been really tired lately.

And FWIW, I love looking at beautiful flowers.

Anonymous said...

I wrote an excessively long response to this post elsewhere. The good news: I will attempt to boil it down here. Such a Pandora's Box: where to find the worth in our lives. In what pleases us? In what pleases others? In what comes easily or what comes the hardest?

1. But first, maybe it’s spring fever but I am really enjoying the rounded volupté in this phrase, “pussy willow, with its fat, silky catkins.”

2. I have long held that every household needs a housewife (or househusband). And if not for the instability of threesomes, and the difficulty of carrying a third partner on your insurance coverage, perhaps many would choose this type of relationship. Especially for working couples, wouldn’t it be bliss to rely on someone else who had the time and attention to be devoted to the running of the house and the family?

3. Anyone who would recoil from a flower arranging class for fear of sullying her reputation is harboring a secret desire to be a kept woman.

4. The secret to keeping house as a working parent is to lower your standards. I will never sacrifice sleep for mopping or dusting. The feeling of shame and lowered standard of living are the prices I'm paying. It's all temporary, these children keep growing up. Maybe someday I'll catch up. As a result of the chaos: I now fantasize about living alone in a little cabin with three changes of clothes and ten books and everything always in its place. If you know me, you know that this is ridiculous; I have never been fastidious.

5. Some are suited to the discipline and asceticism of a single field of study or endeavor. But you Bee, will always be at the center of a lively swirl that includes social and artistic input. I hope you never are cloistered in a career that depletes those other sources of energy.

6. Write, in whatever format you choose. It's like singing, it's your voice. I think your Mom is expressing a generational prejudice against online writing. If blogging is like crack to you and you can’t put the pipe down to accomplish other things you want to do then by all means, avoid it. But otherwise, have fun. I think a blog is a wonderful way to ‘grease the wheels’ of your writing practice while connecting online as well. And now I have a way to check in with you whenever I want. How wonderful! --Jenine

Bee said...


Much wisdom has been given here . . . and hopefully received in the "fullness of mind."