The shutter failed on the camera this afternoon, so for now the flowers I bought today are for my personal edification only. I found some real beauties this week – new shapes to wonder at and get to know. Pink-shelled calla lilies, thistles topped with puffs of golden orange needles, and olive twigs still bending to the wind they grew in, all plunked together with twists of alstroemeria and the dark-eyed punch of sunflowers. The tea pot and white pitcher are full, and the tarnished Hilton coffee pot found its place, too.
I treated myself to Monday off, and I’m just starting to feel like myself again. Most days, I’m just enduring what needs to be handled, accommodated or ignored. Deep concerns are pressed to the edges, holding on Until. Until there’s a little more quiet, and the patient time to listen. And the expectation of forgiveness. This all requires a certain ration of nothing to do.
The stakes have been so high for so many months – and no way to calculate the phantom losses that loom over the days and years to come. I was thinking I had a choice to make – to let go and move forward, or be anchored to a truth I can’t look away from. But I remember now. That’s not the way this goes. Grief is the companion, and you can’t sneak away from it while its back is turned. Grief holds the compass to its own mysterious, shifting terrain. The only way through that I know, to find a truth I can live with from what’s happened – and to let the truth change with time.
My word people like the pictures. My picture people like the words.
I’m thankful for both. Words and pictures, show and tell. You can read and see the story, although it takes some time, and the ending is always the same. To hope, wait for faith. I’m thankful for you, more than I can show or tell.
I did make some gingerbread this weekend – the first thing I’ve baked since about this time last year. I baked a treat for work then – Bisquick coffee cake in mini-bundt molds. They were adorable, and I kept the pan just in case.
The recipe turned out ok. A little dry, but the ginger and molasses were in the right place, and the batter darkened perfectly from peanut-butter brown to rich, dark chocolate. A dozen little scalloped cakes will last me about 3 weeks.
I’ve been waiting to eat gingerbread for a long time. It’s one of the few desserts I actually miss. The gingerbread we grew up on is long since gone – a 29 cent Jiffy mix, relegated to the bottom shelf for bargain brands and the people who buy them. I remember the burst of sweet spice when we opened the small, blue and white box. The ribbons of cinnamon colored batter slurping into the pastel papers that lined the cupcake pan, the endless 20 minutes while they baked, the eternity while the muffins cooled enough to eat. And the tender, dense sponge dissolving its peppery molasses into ice-cold milk or warm tea. Maybe we were watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus while we ate – or maybe it was Carol Burnett.
So, yes – this was the week. The week I finally needed to reach back – way far back – and re-occupy some moment of unalloyed pleasure and safety. A burst of sweetness from a 29 cent cake mix, ginger and cinnamon blooming in the oven, while you stand in the kitchen waiting – and lick the streaks of batter from the bowl.
I guess it is obvious I take these pictures where I live. Here’s the window over here; my lady-like chintz arm chair over there. I eat here and work here. In the dark early hours of Saturday morning, I curled up here and cried – and fell asleep for a while, until I was ready to climb back into bed and dream.
The window is large and bright, but there’s a limit to how much light I can wring out of gloomy skies. So, if you look close, some petals are softer and darker than maybe they should be. But it doesn’t matter very much to me. These fragments of time are just about us looking at something together. Grocery store flowers turning towards each other like a flock of red and yellow birds, flashing their bellies as they disperse into darker branches. You can see it for yourself in the window light, and know that it’s true.
The worst things happen. People leave us here without them, and time becomes heavy and real, like shoes made of lead. The hard part is how ordinary things are still waiting for us. The empty chair persists, but so does the window light. Somehow, someday, they start to co-exist. But not yet. Not today.
The world ends so abruptly. Suddenly, gravity is palpable, pinning you here, when the only answer you can think of is, No. No.
Each instance is so particular, no one else’s history is much help. But we stand here nonetheless, in the spot where gravity left us stranded as well, made us softer – stretched us out until there was another day, and another and another.
Our home ran on tea, brewed in a big brown pot, speckled with red and turquoise buds, with golden vines and leaves trailing between the dots. Brewed so dark – black as a stepmother’s heart our friend Linda used to say. For a while, I was buying the same teapot whenever I found a small one. Their round, brown bellies filled me with memories of certainty and ordinary days. Maybe all the answers went with the big teapot, wherever it ended up.
I think Marv and Barbara would know what to say – so you would know how dearly they loved you. I love you, too.
I did a few little things for you today. Braved the yuppies to buy pumpernickel at Whole Foods. Ordered some socks for decadent feet (not mine, but someone you would like, who stands all day at work.) Made tea after dinner, because you can’t start talking without tea. Coffee is fine for thinking and doing. But the teapot pours forth amber poetry by the mugful, biting your tongue with tannins, leaving traces of baked sugar behind. If you want to talk until long after midnight, it’s tea you need.
Now I know why I’ve been craving tea in the morning. You’re here for a few days, aren’t you? Oh boy, I miss you plenty – but you know that’s hard for me to show. So much of me is modeled on the person I thought you were, that sometimes it’s like you’ve never really gone. Unless I think about it.
We’re in the middle of a really bad storm, and also – there are zombies. Getting through it – I know you’d say – that’s the easy part. It’s the after when I could use you, so please – hang around, ok? Because after all this, it’s us who will have to be the solid ones. And I really don’t know how to do that.
The pumpernickel was good – dense and chewy, spread thick with butter. Apple slices and cheese, too, for dessert. But drinking tea with you, that was the best. I was going to ask for your intercession, but there’s only one thing I really want. Hang around a little while longer, will you?
The expanding dark brings its own pleasures – the reassurance of glowing windows, the cozy warmth of extra blankets, the snug nest of home – all compensations for the ever receding daylight. Really, you can’t live here unless you can find some delight in the dark and the cold. Overhead, more stars than any summer sky will reveal. The certain knowledge that, even during the deepest freezes, you will see someone at the grocery store buying charcoal in shorts and flip-flops. And, it must be said, brandy in your coffee.
I don’t want to leave my Sunday flowers behind, and I don’t want to think about how different this winter may be. The leagues we’ve travelled these seven months – and we still have a long way to go – trapped on this Ship of Fools. I don’t want to let this catastrophe shake my faith in winter. Winter drawing us into our grateful hearts, sinking us into the patient sleep that earth and every creature knows must be taken so we can do the work that only rest can accomplish.
The last rose of the season isn’t like the first one, tickled pink out of her bud by warmth and sun and rain. The last rose takes the dare of failing light and shivering nights. She blooms willfully, a determined glint in her eye. The last rose is gambler who knows she will have to fold – but plays her hand anyway, because either you are in the game or you’re not.
Winter is coming, but not today. Today, there’s still some time to feel the sun, and it’s warm here by the window, in the light.
Oh, yes, I mean that so hard. Thank youse (which is Chicago for “y’all”). For picking up my pieces by telling me your own mishaps, around our grown up campfire. For calling me back from way Up North and far out West, and just the other side of the Beltline – and soothing all my ruffled feathers back into wings that will be sky-worthy again tomorrow.
Now tonight, I’ll just think about your voices, and how lucky I am to find kindness without even asking. And flowers in mid-October still reaching for light and air, beaming with confidence that whatever they need will be given, in return for another day becoming.
I bought some apples today – and more of the juicy colored dahlias still crowding the prime corner stall at the entrance to the North Side farmer’s market. It’s not a fancy market. A strip of parking lot, between the bank and the co-op, set aside for maybe 20 local vendors. The pickings are leaner and leaner each week. Still, leeks are stacked high next to the bok choy, and huge sunflower seed heads are dried and ready to fatten the birds (and inevitably the squirrels) before the snow comes.
You probably eat apples a lot – but I don’t anymore. I haven’t bought an apple in over 10 years.* But my heart melted when I heard the little – and I mean little – Hmong couple explaining to another customer that the 2 varieties for sale had grown on one tree.
He and she saw me looking at the apples in their open crates. Honey Crisps streaked with red and yellow, piled next to the deep, ancient red of the Anonymous Apple, with fruit just the size of a small peach.
“Both good, no spray!” they told me. “Same tree?” I asked. “Oh yes, yes! Four kinds, one tree!” they proudly announced. This bit of apple magic has always enchanted me – mostly, I suppose, because it tells an irresistible story of human curiosity and imagination. With a knife and slip of a bud from another tree, your young apple whip will adopt that bud as its own, and grow another, completely different apple for your pies or cider or brandy.
My farmers obviously relished the idea as much as I did. I could clearly see their smiles beaming through their masks. “Oooh!” I said, raising my eyebrows high so they could read my delight. “Four on one tree? Oh, boy! Wonderful!” I took home two Honey Crisps and 2 Anonymous Apples – my indulgence for the week.
You may have forgotten how fully an apple can engage your senses. The snap of the skin, the dark wine tang fused with a burst of sweet, creamy flesh – tender and crisp at the same time, like a perfectly baked potato. I don’t know if any other fruit has remained such a loyal and common companion to us for so long. Antique apple varieties are an edible encyclopedia of human history. Selected for hundreds of years by our ancestors, their flavors connect us to other centuries with every mouthful. But even more wonderous to me, is that any time-traveller would recognize our modern apples, and take the same delight in Red Delicious and Honey Crisp as we do in a Winesap or Red Pippin.
Anonymous Apple, you were worth it. It’s ok to leave aside some pleasures when you need to, for purposes that you believe in. But old pleasures may serve a purpose deeper than the one you’ve chosen. At once new and familiar, they invite you to a discovery at the core of every day – something so sweet, tasted again for the first time.
*I stand by this statement but last year, on the 10th anniversary of Marv’s death, I bought caramel apples for my crew, because Marv and caramel apples, you know? And my friend cut an apple in half for us to share, because sometimes it’s important to cut a caramel apple in half, and share it with someone you love. And, yes. It was as good as you remember.
It never occurred to me that my enchantment with flowers was any greater than the average hopeless romantic – city dwelling or otherwise. And this lovely question has kept me recollecting my life in flowers all week long. I certainly have needed flowers, more than ever – since the world ended this spring.
I mean that earnestly. Between March and May, the most hopeful days I can remember dissolved into more sadness than I ever imagined I could contain. After a decade of pilgrimages to the groves of crabapples and magnolias and lilacs curated at the Arboretum, this spring the petals unexpectedly lost their sweetness. Every unfurling blossom seemed to peel back another layer of my disappointment and heartbreak. The tender pink branches opened and opened without me. I had to let my ritual go, like so many other little joys I’d never thought to question. Especially on Sundays.
(Spoiler alert, my dears, lest you worry yourself. I’m really, truly fine. In fact, I might even be a little better than before. I’m actually that stubborn.)
What the flowers have made clear to me is simple. The things we are waiting for others to give us – we need to give ourselves. This is not to say we don’t need others to warm us, nourish us, help our gardens grow. I would not have hoped at all without another more loving voice, insisting I see myself through those other, loving eyes.
Still, it is up to us to un-break our own hearts. There’s no one else to do it, darling. And you can’t repair your heart with stinginess. It takes flowers and lots of them. Flowers every Sunday.