I am walking through the University of California Botanical Garden with my girlfriend, admiring the fronds of the palm trees and intentionally mispronouncing their Latin names to a less-than-comedic effect.
As if summoned by my foolishness, a woman walks toward us with an official name tag that reads “MARYBETH.” With flare-bottomed sweatpants, kind blue eyes and gray hair falling to the middle of her back, she seems a living symbol of the spirit of the Berkeley ‘60s. To complete the picture, a ladybug lands gently on her shoulder, resting after a long flight.
“Hello! I’m a wandering docent, and I’m here to answer any questions you might have about the garden,” she says in a warm voice.
Lost among the fronds, we gladly accept her offer and ask about the ages of the plants, how they got here and who brought them. As she teaches us about our surroundings, I see her eyes light up. Each piece of information seems to lead naturally to the next as she guides us on a wild path around the 34-acre garden, showing us a soft-needled cypress, a tree with flowers like a monkey’s hands and sage that smells like grape soda. She closely reads the underside of a milkweed leaf, searching for evidence of caterpillars.
Under her guidance, the garden comes to life, speaking a new, silent language of smell and touch.
After a lovely half hour of improvised touring, she leaves us to find other clueless tourists, but I feel a new sense of purpose in her wake. Rather than wandering, I pay attention to each plant’s descriptive plaque, and I take time to smell the roses. She has taught me how to read the garden.
Though the real Marybeth is surely just a kind woman with a passion for botany, I cannot help constructing her as a literary character in my mind. Like a classical mentor from a heroic tale (think Yoda or Mr. Miyagi), her enthusiasm about plants seems too perfectly aligned with my own passion for reading to be a coincidence. Her close inspection of the leaves is a perfect mirror of my scouring the leaves of a book. If this were a novel, she would acknowledge our similarities, lead me to an overwhelming epiphany about my own abilities and send me out into the great big world with a lasting vote of confidence.
With a brain steeped in literature, I often fall into this habit of viewing the people around me as secondary characters in my own story. Marybeth assumes the role of mystic mentor, my friends become foils that serve to aid my character development and each face on the street is easily reduced to a mere extra.
To a certain extent, this tendency is unavoidable. Because I can only fully access my own thoughts, it feels empowering to assume that the people around me do not experience the world as fully as I do — that some author lurks behind me, funnelling more attention into me, the protagonist, than into anyone else.
But, as Marybeth continues to enthusiastically lead us from plant to plant, my initial assumptions about her character begin to fade. She is not simply a “symbol of the ‘60s,” she is a shining example of a person who has followed her passions to their furthest ends.
My love for writing and my distant dreams of becoming an English professor are both based solely on a passion for reading I’ve had since childhood and for imparting this passion to others. Like many in my position, I often second-guess my pursuits, wondering if my driving desires are too vague to construct a viable future on.
Though I still know very little about her, Marybeth’s brief interlude in my life gave me a resounding affirmation that the pursuit of niche passions can result in a life of fulfillment.
I felt a pang of guilt over my restriction of her character into the parameters I had forced onto her. In truth, my identification with Marybeth’s passion touched me more deeply than I anticipated. Her natural ability to impart her love for the garden cut through my assumptions that she would be a “minor character” in my life and revealed a truly kind person beneath them.
Instead of fitting into a character, she leapt forward as another human being with passions as intricate and valid as my own.
Walking along the rocky path, I began to feel less like a protagonist in my own story and more like a minor character in Marybeth’s: the curious young English major that she met briefly during her years as a wandering docent.
Anthony writes the Monday column on literature and life. Contact him at email@example.com.