The Bonsai Club of Milwaukee

We happened upon an exhibition for the Bonsai Club of Milwaukee. It wasn’t intentional, this viewing of shrubs and trees in miniature, just convenient since we had a sitter and we had time. My husband, with thoughts of root systems and leaf shapes, observed, as always, from a distance called science. I paced the maze of planters and pots looking only for what pleased my eye. The bonsai had been judged, and like any State Fair exhibition hall, most of the ribbons remained tacked to the week-old display, all shabby pride with no particulars to aid in understanding the judge’s criteria.

Later, we walked the grounds of the botanical gardens that had hosted the bonsai club’s exhibit, talking about the things we don’t usually talk about. I said, how different our lives are from everyone else’s, and yet, I can’t quite figure out why. He said, things are not so different from the way everyone else’s are. That’s what we say to each other, especially about the dark and about mysteries. I say, things, they are hard. He says, no, things, they aren’t as hard as you make them. But the bonsai, I say…

The exhibition was organized in groups: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced. There was a winner for every category, and various Miss Congeniality-level awards that seemed to laud effort rather than result. It was the beginner entrants that caught my eye. Each show just how people create bonsai–magician’s secret revealed!–with wire. No different, really, than customized cages. Not so different from feet binding. Not that different from rules and policy and politeness, but I knew something else.

The intermediates had already been loosed a bit. Yes, they were still forming, still pushing against restraints, but they already displayed a helium-like lightness to their sparse leaves or needles reaching up for light, for life, that defied the dark and twisted nature of the stunted wood. The advanced were wireless but acquiescent, all quirky beaut, passive acceptance. But those beginner trees, wires twisted up stunted trucks, restrained branches, enforced gravity, little beauty yet to justify the treatment; they defined me where I was just now. I knew what I felt, and the knowing was hard: I looked at my future–all constraint and adaption–and saw little more than a life lived in miniature.

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