What’s good for the soul

Buying Flowers

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“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”  Henri Matisse

“I love that you have flowers on your grocery list,” the nutritionist I’d been seeing said smiling as she looked over my list from my last trip to Trader Joe’s.  “Well, I always buy flowers,” I say, somewhat shyly but also with a bit of pride.

I didn’t always buy flowers.  I mostly bought them when we were entertaining in our small Brooklyn apartment.  It was often one of my husband’s chores to run out to the corner store and choose some flowers as I feverishly cleaned and got everything else ready to impress my guests.   I had a hard time deciding on a type of flower myself and would often defer to him even if we were together at the flower shop.

Besides the entertaining, he also bought me flowers quite often, and in fact, the day before he died, I had just tossed the last bouquet that he bought me before he left for his trip.  I realized and regretted that right away.  The last bouquet.  They must have started to look sad because I always used to tell him, and he rather liked it, “Nothing can brighten a room like fresh flowers, and nothing is more depressing in a room than dying, wilting flowers.”  I can still see him outside our apartment windows, his silhouette getting off the bus and holding the flowers.  I think he had done something “wrong,” and so I half expected them.  Still, I had smiled to myself when I saw him carrying the white paper cone in one hand.  They were pink carnations I think- or white maybe, with darker pink streaks through them.  It does get hard to remember.

Afterwards, I set up a memorial of sorts on the same table, spreading out all of the photos from the funeral in the black IKEA frames friends had bought for that purpose, and buying fresh flowers each week from the Whole Foods I walked to along the Hudson River.  It seems extravagant that I bought flowers as a newly widowed young mother with no source of income, and maybe it was- extravagant yet vital.  After putting my toddler to bed, I often stood before all the frames and flowers in the dark living room at night, shadows from the busy street outside running past, and said goodnight to him.

Later, when I changed the apartment around and it consisted mostly of play spaces for my daughter, I no longer kept all the photos in that spot, but I kept buying the flowers.  If we visited the cemetery, even if we went to buy fresh flowers as well, I pulled out a few from our own present bouquet to leave there, so that when we got home later, I could look at our bouquet and know that a few of those same flowers were there – with him.

Years before, while working in a cubicle at a publishing job that sucked the life out of me, I had discovered that flowers were transformative.  One morning, while walking my usual route from the subway at Union Square up to my building, I stopped to admire the pink peonies they were selling outside a small market.  On impulse, I was compelled to buy them and brought their softness and life into my cubicle of buzzing fluorescent light and stale air.  I felt a lightness and refreshment that entire day that I never forgot.

When you’re suffering, you cling to anything of comfort or beauty.  And isn’t something of genuine beauty also usually something of hope?  My husband used to tell me to eat whatever I felt like eating when I was sick rather than stick with toast and tea or chicken noodle soup.  “If you feel like pizza, eat that.  It’s good for the soul and you’ll get better,” he said.  In a small booklet I received at an arts conference, which is now a book called “On Becoming Generative”– artist and founder of International Arts Movement, Makoto Fujimura, begins his exploration on why we need to cultivate beauty in our lives by recounting his newlywed days, when money was particularly tight.  He was sitting in his small apartment worrying about paying the rent and buying food when his wife walked in with flowers:

‘How could you think of buying flowers if we can’t even eat!’ I remember saying, frustrated. …. I do not remember what we ended up eating that day, or that month (probably tuna fish.)

But I do remember that particular bouquet of flowers.  I painted them.”

“We need to feed our souls, too,” his wife had replied.

At my daughter’s first grade Thanksgiving party, I bring small bouquets of mixed fall mums wrapped in brown craft paper and twine for each table.  “In all my years teaching, no class parent has ever brought in flowers!” the teacher says.  I privately wince- no flowers?   The children keep moving the bouquets closer to themselves from the center of each table of about six kids.  “Are these real?” they ask- touching them.  “They are!”

Last winter I bring daffodils to a woman in our town who has just lost her husband to cancer.  She had a daughter in first grade at Audrey’s school at the time.  I hadn’t met her, but we had corresponded via email, and I leave the daffodils on her doorstep.  Another young widow who I meet through my last blog and is now a good friend sends me a journal last year for Christmas that gets me writing again.  I send her a set of three small white vases from CB2 with a note saying, “Buy flowers.”

This morning there are some lovely white ranunculus with a hint of pale green coloring, my current favorite flower, offered at my weekly trip to Trader Joe’s- beauty I gently place in the front of my shopping cart.  Beauty for $5.99.  (Yes, Trader Joe’s has great prices on flowers.) As I bring them inside my house, unload the groceries, and find a vase for them, this post occurs to me.  The quotes and ideas form like bullet points in my mind, and I jot them down.  Feeding my soul for $5.99.  Makoto painted his bouquet.  I write about mine.  It’s as though they possess an inherent creative energy that counteracts any destructive energy.

And tonight, as I write, I decide to look through iphoto to find a few photos of the flowers I’ve had over the last few years.  I am sure that I have at least a few, but I am shocked at how many I find.  They are not staged like a still life from the pages of Real Simple.  They are snapped quickly with my phone mostly, sometimes out of focus, and sometimes surrounded by the usual clutter of daily life- Legos, books, snacks.  I suppose when you see something beautiful, you want to take a photo of it.  Now that I’m sketching, I often find myself sitting at the dining room table sketching them and painting them with watercolors.  I sift through the months of the past four years on iphoto-  from the raw, early days of grief and through each season: pink and red tulips for Valentine’s day, daffodils in late February or March to cheer on spring as winter gets long, sunflowers in September, white hydrangeas I pair with red berries for Christmas, snap peas, irises, roses-  and I find what I really have is a journal of flowers.

The backgrounds change as we move from one apartment to another, as my daughter grows from a toddler to a six-year old girl.  The flowers have comforted me, and now they comfort me again.  I feel a strange sense of pride reviewing it- evidence that I have held it together better than I thought.  My life fell apart around me, but there were flowers on the table.  “I want Audrey to feel beauty and good things about this world,” my husband had written in an email a few weeks before he died.  The flowers help.  Seeing that I bought them, displayed them, and photographed them- assures me that hope has been here all along-  sometimes in a simple bowl or small glass vase, humble and often in the background- but also steadfast and striking.

Here they are:

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To see the rest of her photos, go here.

Hope means hoping when things are hopeless

Advent and the little girl, Hope

Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.”

– G.K. Chesterton

It looked unquestionably bleak.

In a matter of two weeks, the Nazis had roared through Luxembourg, crushed the Netherlands, marauded through Belgium and blitzed deeply into France. The French Army and British Expeditionary Force found themselves pressed onto the beaches of Dunkirk with their backs to the unforgiving waters of the English Channel. The Americans across the Atlantic made it very clear that they wouldn’t send their boys to any foreign wars. And Great Britain looked increasingly alone.

But as the grim events inexorably unfolded, the bulldogish Prime Minister Winston Churchill made it clear to his Cabinet: There would be no surrender. In the darkness of those days – days which anticipated the Blitz of screaming bomber attacks on the cities of England – Churchill growled to his band of brothers.

The House [of Commons] should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.

And within days, Churchill further pronounced,

I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.

Hope.

That was the first and greatest weapon raised against the Nazi menace. Hope was the light that illuminated blood-stained rocks on embattled Pacific islands and cold corners of the blackest concentration camps. It fired the chilled soldiers in the wintry foxholes of Bastogne and it refreshed the dirt-coated liberators in North Africa. Hope wasn’t a component of victory; it was the key to it.

That is the essence of Advent.

In dark days of disease and loneliness, fear and guilt, sin and death, a dusty prophet declared to an enslaved nation,

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone. (Isaiah 9:1)

In a cultural backwater occupied by fearsome soldiers and short, unforgiving lives, a peasant girl was visited by a heavenly creature,

Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High – and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.  (Luke 1:28, 30-33)

An expectant mother and adoptive father, wise men traveling from afar, shepherds sensing a change in the chill wind on the edge of town – all were drawn by faith, but pushed by hope.

What is this strange thing, hope?

Perhaps the French poet, Charles Peguy, described it best in The Portal of the Mystery of Hope.

The faith that I love best, says God, is hope.
Faith doesn’t surprise me.
Its not surprising
I am so resplendent in my creation…

Charity says God, that doesn’t surprise me.
It’s not surprising.
These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for one another.
How could they not love their brothers.
How could they not take the bread from their own mouth, their daily bread, in order to give it to the unhappy children who pass by…

What surprises me, says God, is hope.
And I can’t get over it.
This little hope who seems like nothing.
This little girl hope.
Immortal…

It’s she, the little one, who carries them all.
Because Faith sees only what is.
But she, she sees what will be.
Charity loves only what is.
But she, she loves what will be.

Yes, that’s it. Hope is a precious, vibrant, beaming little girl who loves not only what is, but what will be.

Oh, it is true. At times in our lives, things can look a little bleak.

But take courage.

The essence of Advent is a little girl, Hope.