Sunday, July 16, 2017

That Perfect Concept of a Flower

As I was about to toss some withered and mostly dead flowers unceremoniously into the trash, something gave me pause.  That moment suddenly got larger and more deeply scented in the depths of my mind as I stood there staring at them before they took the plunge into the darkness of the tall metal can lined with plastic.  And I stopped to snap a few photos in that moment... thinking that doing so would capture what I was feeling, which was carrying me quietly to a deeper place.

But then, when taking the photos wasn't enough to capture it, I turned where I often turn.  Writing.  Letting the emotion of the moment pour out, just seeing where it takes me.  Riding the universe of my mind through my words.

Floral sections of markets draw me in on even the most mundane of shopping trips.  I always seem to feel compelled to smell at least one bunch of flowers when passing by as if some bee-like honing quality has momentarily taken over my brain.  Even more delightful still are flowers in the wild.

I guess it's hard to call more than one thing a favorite when you can't narrow it down to a winner, because by definition, a "favorite" is the best one of the bunch....  With flowers, like songs and poems, though, I can't ever seem to pick just one.  Maybe everyone has this problem, and that's why there are such things as bouquets and mix tapes (er, playlists).  But, in any event, these are my favorites: Camellias, and their nostalgic ability to bring my mind zooming back to my childhood life in small town Louisiana.  Zinnias, and all their varied, crowded, gloriously wild intermingling stalks.  Cherry blossoms in their ethereal majesty.  Honeysuckle, in its calling us to partake of its golden sweetness on our tongues.  Wisteria, in its grape-like bunches of cascading petals emoting romance and charm.  Magnolias... that scent... there's really nothing better in this world.  (Hm.  The scent of the magnolia is really capturing something important to me... and after re-reading this post for typos before posting, that now makes so much sense in my retrospection... you'll see.)

But flowers bear a sadness, too, in their very being.  They are the living things, brought to their early demise, so that we can adorn bodies and tables with them on the most special of occasions -- in our hands in weddings, on long dinner tables at holiday feasts, on nervous lapels at proms, or in our hair as crowns in tea parties in fields.  And yet they are also the living things we are compelled to gift to others in times of immense sorrow -- the death or memory of a loved one, a miscarriage, or yet another surgery.  In both those forms of celebration -- in the lightest light and in the darkest dark -- we wield the flowers' life cycle to bring a thing of beauty into a moment that needs or deserves it, yet they also remind us of the reality of the temporal and fleeting nature of beauty... of life... of gifts... of joy... and even of sadness.

They can be a reminder and a muse, all at once.

If we look closely enough in our staring, we can feel the anticipation of the bud just forming, the awe in the glory of the full bloom, and even the melancholic love of the shriveling petal, which dries out no matter how much water it is given.  If we pay attention, we can see the cycle of the flowers, not just the life and death of the singular, momentary flower.

And, in my mind's wandering, I am also reminded of the Little Prince's rose.  In that book, Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry describes a rose the Little Prince loved above all else.  It was the thought that there was his single rose on his teeny planet somewhere in the universe among the stars that made all the stars special and bright.  Without the knowledge that his rose was among them, the starts might as well have all been dark.  So long as the rose was out there somewhere, all was right in the world of his mind.  To a garden of roses, he spoke:

"You are beautiful, but you are empty," he went on. "One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you -- the rose that belongs to me.  But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose."

While the metaphor of the Little Prince is a tearfully beautiful one to which I have always been drawn -- the idea of a singular special rose -- I am thinking for the first time that this prose, in fact, misses the beauty of the rose.  A gardener does not prune a single rose for his whole life, yet he probably loves roses more than anyone.  A gardener prunes his roses In fact, when you get down to it, isn't even roses in their plural form, nor is it even a singular rose, after all, that move him.  In his mind, it is the singular concept of the rose he loves.  It is his love of the essence of the rose that keeps him wanting to consume its scent and to watch it bloom again and again and what causes him to care for it to keep it alive as long as he can.  But we all know, you can't keep a single rose longer than its life.  Unless you dry it.  And then, I guess you can keep it.  But then it is nothing but a dried rose that no longer smells.  It is not the same.  And a rose under a glass for safe-keeping still doesn't actually stop time, except in fairy tales.  And willing it otherwise only focuses on the fear of the inevitable loss of the one flower.  But, dear readers, do not despair as the Little Prince would have. 

Hope is not lost.  Quite to the contrary.  Indeed, the most deeply incredible thing about flowers is their ability to be, quite literally, distilled down to an essence so that we understand what is essential about the flower, not just its petals... the way it leaves a scent too strong to be overpowered by even the foulest of things this world can throw at us.  Even as we give and receive flowers in our times of greatest joy and our times of greatest need, we are forced to watch them die, which we accept... because we have to.  But unlike the Little Prince's focus on a small, momentary, singular concept of his rose, which evokes his fear, the idea of the flower... the genre of the flower... the eternal nature of its blooming and its perpetual scent can come to us again and again over time and bring a peace with understanding of the ebbs and flows of the process of new flowers blooming.

There is a peace embedded in the idea of the cyclical nature of blooming that helps us escape the mourning of the death of each momentary bloom.  It is this very kind of idea that has driven me to heal time and again after surgeries.  Rebirth.  Re-blooming.  To see myself as a cyclical being with new growth after what felt like near death too many times.  I lost petals.  Maybe even whole blooms.  But I nevertheless bloomed again.  Like ocean tides flowing in and out, flowers bloom again and again, even though individual clusters of petals surely die.  

Every time I see a magnolia tree in bloom and simply remember to inhale, the death of all the prior flowers never even enters my mind, and I am filled with only my love of its scent and the beauty it carries.  When one bloom dies, we simply look forward to the next one in the cyclic beauty of nature.  It is the magnolia we must think of, not the bloom that had its time.  And when we accept that, we can resume the task of tossing the wilted ones in the trash without much pause, or we may need to place them up on a shelf someplace safe to be dried by time because sometimes in our sentimentality we're not quite ready to let these particular petals go just yet, but deep down we know that there will be many more magnolia blooms to come, and they will unfold anew and carry their beautiful scent. 

In a joke I once heard about the irony of giving the gift of flowers, a comedian once said it something like this:  "I love you... so here, watch these flowers die."  The irony has surface comedic appeal, to be sure.  But it assumes that giving the gift of flowers is undermined by the very fate of the individual flower and its transience.  I am consciously realizing anew that it is not the flower, in its momentary bloom, that is even the point.  It's a much more universal concept that is drawing me in.  It is the idea of flowers that bloom again and again that we experience with each new blossoming.  Even if it takes watching flowers die in their season to remind us of that.  The magnolia is always the magnolia, which blooms again and again, and its scent is ingrained.  Maybe, in fact, the essence I have always loved from the Little Prince is even more true when viewed through the lens of the beauty of the essence of the flower versus the existence of a momentary flower:  "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."  We must look at the essence.  Never just the petals.