The late May Sarton loved flowers and kept vases of them all over her house. On page one of Journal of a Solitude she explains why:
When I am alone the flowers are really seen; I can pay attention to them. They are felt presences. Without them I would die. Why do I say that? Partly because they change before my eyes. They live and die in a few days; they keep me closely in touch with process, with growth, and also with dying. I am floated on their moments.
These days wife Kathy’s stargazer lilies, clematis, and plenty of others make the yard a happy riot, and a couple times a day, I stop, look for a few seconds at some bright spot, and float. The trouble is, my favorite activity in life is floating: find beauty, breathe it in and out, and float. Maybe this is because, like Sarton, “I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.”
Well, that’s a little overstated for me–I’m not unregenerate–but Sarton captures the main idea: I often feel as though I’m swimming upstream. I need beauty to help me float, even if the buoyancy takes me back downstream.
A few days ago I had an evening to think back over some of the flowers that have lined my path lately. The free time, I should point out, surfaced because while schlepping around the grocery store in my old Birkenstocks, I caught my piggy toe on one of the cart’s wheels. It’s curious how several ideas can come to mind in an instant:
- Heavens to Murgatroyd, I just broke my toe!
- Don’t pass out.
- Wait, it’s sticking out at a 45° angle. Is it possible to jerk a toe out of joint?
- Jiminy Cricket!
- They don’t do anything for a broken toe anyway.
“What have I got to lose?” I thought, then bent over, made a mental note to lose weight, and pressed piggy back toward its siblings: click! I didn’t hear it, but felt it. Had I just lucked out? We would have to see.
Trying not to limp too tragically up and down the aisles, I covered the rest of the list. The sweat that comes with a freak injury flowed, and occasionally I sounded like Yosemite Sam walking on hot coals. But I made it through the checkout, to the truck, and once home told Kathy and son Micah my tale.
I wouldn’t be preparing salmon and a Boston lettuce and avocado salad for supper. With foot elevated, I took four ibuprofen with two glasses of water, then sipped some Primal Roots red blend. As Kathy and I sat together, I looked out at the sun making the boulevard maples glow. Every few minutes my toe felt like it was inhabited by a tiny troll who, furious at being held captive, was using a pick ax to escape. Then, out of nowhere, a certainty settled on me.
“My God,” I said to myself and Kathy, “we’re so lucky.” I thought out loud our litany of blessings: home, food, clothing, loved ones, and more. Once in a while you remember that, although some sad spot inside sounds its chronic ache, you generally abide in Eden—a lush garden of breathing and floating. So on the porch my flummoxed toe and I floated. Breathing in, breathing out, I gave thanks for flowers that have lined my path lately.
Confession: until grandson Cole was born on November 30, 2013, I wasn’t a baby guy. Sure, little ones struck me as cute and good-smelling mostly, but I was never one to squeal and beg to hold them. But now my fifty-two-year-old heart has been cracked open.
Last week, twice in one day, I had occasion to visit Cole: first to drop off a key to my 1999 Mazda 626 so son-in-law Renaissance man Matt could fix the power-steering, which had crapped the bed, and second, to drop off a little treat for Elena.
For a while now I’ve been negotiating with myself, trying to overcome private struggles. Every few years Thich Nhat Hanh comes along with a dandelion of hope and encouragement. The opening of his Peace Is Every Step reminds me that today doesn’t have to be yesterday: “Every morning, when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these twenty-four hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others.” I have to keep in mind that change is possible.
In the midst of struggles and weakness, I have the mindfulness to invite the smallest of flowers to set me afloat. At Starbucks baristas come around with samples, and the taste of a croissant—two bites—brought me to the present moment, to the gifts of tasting and breathing.
Stories sometimes come to me as flowers and help me to float. A dear friend recently sent me a message that evoked equal parts joy and sadness. I’ve made a couple of changes for the sake of privacy.
After a long nap this afternoon on my own bed . . . ahhh . . . I took my bride out to supper. It was very fancy. Hoagies and a clam strip basket at the ice cream place. I said, do you want to take a ride, and we did. We went out around the lake.
On the way out, we went past the county home. In the drive way was an old woman standing with a mug of coffee. As we approached in the truck, she began to dance around like a little girl. My wife said, “She lives in the home, but waits every day for her husband to come. He’s dead. But she stands outside every day waiting with a cup of coffee for him.”
I was really struck by the sight of an old lady with beautiful long silver hair dancing as if she was ten. Maybe one day she’ll be able to give him that cup of joe.
I guess even a sad story can be beautiful as long as it tells some kind of truth. When it comes to floating, I’m not fussy. Anything buoyant will do: a baby, a few words to correct my course, a piece of bread, the image of a woman waiting for her dead husband–and a sore toe. After all, if I didn’t have to sit with my leg raised, I wouldn’t have noticed Shenley Drive’s shimmering trees or let go as the current took me downstream.
P.S. The day after my toe lost to the shopping cart, I was black and blue, but without pain. The next day, even the bruise was gone. I just checked with the Toe Doctor, and you can dislocate your toe. Well turn me over your knee and spank me with a wet fish!