One of the traditions Ginger and I observe every year is a trip to the New England Flower Show in Boston. Officially, spring is eight days away; realistically, I don’t plant much of anything until after Memorial Day. An exposition hall full of blooms is a welcome sight in these parts.
Some years we have walked through snow to get into the hall. Today it was rainy and over fifty degrees. Inside the Bayside Exposition Center we saw display after display of flowers, plants, and ideas for landscaping. We then followed our regular path, which goes first to the Cactus Club booth for Mexican food and margaritas and then through the exhibit hall to look at everything from strange bulbs to massage chairs to yard art. I always come away with an idealized picture of what I would like our yard to look like. I’m always happy if I manage to pull off one of those ideas. Part of it is the scanner thing; the other parts are time and money.
Two summers ago, we went to Philadelphia for our high school mission trip. We stayed at Old First Reformed Church UCC and worked at a four different sites around the city. My favorite site was the Norris Square Neighborhood Project where we worked with a wonderful woman named Iris who had a heart for her neighborhood and a green thumb. For almost twenty years she has been talking the city into letting her convert vacant lots into community gardens, both for flowers and for vegetables. The earliest ones now have trees thirty and forty feet tall. She has not stopped dreaming. She and her friends, who call themselves Grupo Motivos, were renovating an old house to turn into a restaurant and were always looking for new plots to claim. In what was one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods, they planted hope and are now harvesting their crop.
One day she came with an armload of stair spindles and a big box of acrylic paints in bright colors.
“We need you to be artists,” she said to the young people. “Paint these so we can use them to decorate our gardens.”
What the kids created out of those old pieces of wood was amazing. They did not just paint them in single colors, but put clouds and faces and all sorts of stuff on them. Iris was ecstatic. When I asked how she would use them, she said she was going to stick them randomly in the flowerbeds for color.
“I think you should use fishing line and hang some of them from the trees, so it looks like they are floating.”
She smiled and looked at me over the top of her glasses. “Are you sure you’re not part Puerto Rican?” she asked.
I loved the compliment. After working alongside those wonderful folks all week and eating their food, I would be more than happy to be Puerto Rican. Last summer, my friend Burt helped me put up a new section of fence in the back to create a larger vegetable garden. I ended up with a small segment of fence that has four thin posts. I’m going to paint it this year and put it in the garden to remind me of Iris and my honorary Puerto Rican heritage.
One of the cool things about living in a place where winter comes in earnest is we know resurrection experientially. From December to April, at least, my garden is dead. I’m of the mindset that the soil gets fed by the dead stuff, so I don’t clear the beds until springtime, which means when we don’t have snow on the ground my yard is a kind of horticultural cemetery with last years dried blooms and stalks serving as markers of what is buried there. After Easter – sometimes a long time after – when I clear the dead stuff away I am greeted by small green shoots pushing up through the soil, refusing to let death have the last word. The trees, who have stood naked through the winter storms, bud, flower, and then adorn themselves in their verdant coats and dance in the summer breezes that blow between the beach and the marsh.
Death is not the last word. It is, however, a recurring word. As Halloween comes and the frost is on the pumpkin, I will watch the garden die once again and wait, once more, for resurrection.
The prevailing view of history in Western culture has been a linear one: we stared at The Beginning and we are moving to The End. We tend to think of events as Once And For All. My garden tells me differently, as do the traditions Ginger and I mark each year, building altars of memory that will feed us when we circle around. Maybe that’s why it took Moses and the Israelites forty years circling around in an area about the size of Rhode Island. They weren’t lost as much as they were living.
Lent is spiritual winter. These days stand like the dead stalks in my flowerbeds, remnants of what once was and frail promises of what is to come. We are moving toward Resurrection, yes. Then comes Ordinary Time, then Advent, and then – before we know it – we will be back in Lent, waiting in the cemetery for life to spring forth once more.
Part of what is coming back to life for me is the self-confidence I can call myself a writer. I was born without any entrepreneurial genes, so I don’t know how to sell what I have. Between that and my depression, I have circled for close to a decade covering the same territory, finding flashes of life, and living through a long, long winter. I’m hoping what grows this time around will take root more than things have in the past. I don’t mind the circle of life, but I am tired of repeating the same scenes. That’s not living in the best sense of the word. Growing is living.
That’s what the dead flowers tell me.