Well, this blue was just a loveliness I couldn’t pass up – even though I am trying to cut back a little on flowers so I can get some other things I need.
I haven’t written as much about my ups and downs here lately. I’m not sure why. I certainly still have them. One night last week, I drove past a particularly steadfast and cozy house, with a single, electric candle shining each window. In an instant, I burst into tears. Its unattainable durability suddenly embodied all the ways I have never grown up, or managed to fill any capacity larger than barely covering rent and food and, it must be admitted, flowers. I have plenty of regret to keep me company, any time.
And I spend a lot of time in music that absorbs and transmutes dilemmas that can’t be resolved with only words. Wrapped in Johnny Hartmann’s incomparable voice – It Was Almost Like a Song. Drive Fast (The Stuntman) – the same prayer Bruce has been writing for 40 years. Keep me in your heart.
But the flowers themselves are medicine. The oceans of shadow and color in each miniature bell or feather-light petal, the air filled with their green scent and respiration. Spending some time, some where, with just what is beautiful. There is so much hope in that.
Just in time for the gloomiest skies we’ve had all year,
when we couldn’t tell 9 a.m. from 5 p.m. for all the January gray:
Well, hello there 2023, when did you sneak in?
I don’t have too many plans for you, except to try to see some of the far away people I love in actual real life. And to take pictures of my things. It would be fun to go dancing, etc. I might get a new hat to wear in the garden.
Instead of figuring out what I plan to do with you, I’d like to ask you, 2023, to take it a little easier on us. The whole world, I mean. We’ve had enough power-mad zombies to last us for a good long while. Maybe you could arrange for them to get stuck together on a desert island and leave the everyone in peace? I’m looking at you Elon, Vlad, Don and Mitch. Bon Voyage, boys!
In addition, I wouldn’t mind more barely pink chrysanthemum frills and blushing alstromeria, with spicy sweet stock winding its way into a sunny spot by the window.
Actually, that’s sort of a minimum I expect from you, 2023.
The Arctic came for a visit, as it is wont to do – but it came a little too early for our collective liking. By me, the snow fell not as hard as predicted. The wind blew not as bad – but the biting cold overwhelmed both of those factors, and set winter firmly in place for the next week or so. As luck would have it, my lights stayed on and my wheels kept rolling. It was not like that for everyone – so we have to count this Christmas as a blessed one indeed.
Every little house looks so sweet with its new white roof and landscape. Yard by yard, block by block, the frigid dark glows with warmly colored lights festooning gutters and shrubs, watched over by inflatable lawn giants – Snowmen, Santas, Grinches. My neighbors put out Santa riding a dinosaur. I like where they are going with that.
I can’t tell what to think about Christmas. Is it too material or too much pressure? I think it’s a very good idea to get together with people you love, and eat pie and add a little nog to a hot drink – and give people things or otherwise do something that makes them smile.
I think it’s an equally good idea to remember that in long nights, something new and unexpected can be born. And to keep in mind that, whether you believe the story or not, it starts out with two young people about to become parents, who have nowhere to sleep, and no one to help them. I’m not sure about the rest of the story – but I believe that part. That good – even miraculous good – has the power to unfold, unpredicated in circumstance – through will, through love, and even just through luck.
That seems like plenty of Christmas to me.
Next Sunday is Christmas, as it happens – and the very darkest, longest night of the year is just a few days away. Indoors, we take our glow where we can find it – reflections in amber candle light, starbursts of petals and pine boughs giving back what they took from the sun on some warmer day in a far off place.
This time of year is crowded with emotional edges. Places you can’t back away from because the culture just won’t allow it. The ascending dark and cold carving out a season prone to introspection. We pass inevitably from grief for the old into a new, unwritten year, muddled with celebration and loneliness. Who wouldn’t feel like crying?
The afternoon was cold and beautifully blue, with almost no wind. Fluffy nests of snow piled in the branches of every tree. Overhead, puffs of pure white mingled clouds with snow and snow with clouds. If you were a kid, you would not want to come back inside until you were a snowman yourself.
I took my walk at the botanic gardens and stopped for a while next to the bench where Mom would sit to get back her energy. I could see her there so clearly – in her brown car coat, leaning on her cane, spine curled like a comma from the osteoporosis. She would have peered up at the pattern of the bare black twigs, listened for birds singing from the shelter of the thick arbor vitae, and marveled at the miracle of being out in the snow – a lost pleasure for her, because the specter of hidden ice made walking in winter so treacherous.
I could imagine her thin, soft hand in mine and hear what she would say. “Keep going toward the sunlight, honey. I’m okay where I am. I miss you.”
Winter peonies. As unexpected a treat as oranges in December – remember? Stand close and you will catch the clove-spice carnation mixed with the medicine of pine and eucalyptus. Press your nose closer still to find a hint of sweet hay and honey from the peonies, their muted scent hidden amidst glorious petals.
Lately, the flowers have begun to tell what they want without much agony from me. This, too, is an unexpected treat. I understand how rare and precious it is to feel things make themselves, and mostly need only to listen well, and do what is asked.
And yet – I think I might need to take a break and let some new things happen. Or just let some nothing happen. It’s probably the internet I need a break from – not the flowers, or the camera or the words. Everything has changed so much, me included. Maybe I want some time to get acquainted.
And maybe it is the darkening world, asking for time alone together – to see what isn’t readily shown, and feel the expanded outlines of what became from summer’s growth.
The most important thing is to make something pretty with flowers. Not to make a picture, but to feel the color and tenderness and spirit of each stem as they find a way to belong together – and to acknowledge the magic they seem to accomplish in my heart.
When I have taken all the pictures I think I can, I set the vase on the bookshelf or chinoiserie cabinet, and say out loud, “Thank you, beautifuls.”
When I leave for work in the morning, I say “Good bye, beautifuls,” right before I close the door – so they know I understand they have their own work to do in the light and silence.
And when I come home after work, I say “Hello, beautifuls,” as soon as I open the door – so they know I appreciate the blessing they’ve bestowed, just greeting me as themselves.
And every night, when I turn out the lights in the living room, I say again, “Thank you, beautifuls.” And I mean it – because they really have made me feel so happy.
Cherry-dark mums are just the color of all my heart. The self-inflicted worries and disappointments; the sweet throbs that race ahead of thinking and good sense – all as deeply held in their shadows as they are brightly curving in the light.
I wanted the flowers’ darkness to remain intact, the most important thing to know about them. One petal after another, each a strand in a story that can’t be told with only soft tints that let the light shine through.
And now we are back to cold, windy walks – an inevitable feature of life where winter lingers.
You need to acquire a taste for the cold – the way, for example, people keep telling themselves they like Negronis. If you can’t find a way to make the most of the cold, you are going to be grumpy and uncomfortable here at least 5 months of the year. And some would say 7 months because there are no guarantees in April or May. (Another thing about the cold – it gives you something to write about. Just ask Garrison Keillor.)
One thing about taking a walk in the cold – you feel like you accomplished something. That’s the trick I play on myself to make it worthwhile. Olbrich Botanic Gardens is my favorite place to walk during the winter. The gardens are guaranteed to get whatever wind is coming off Lake Monona. Once the lake freezes, that wind is 100% ice. So you’d think you’d want to hurry through the gardens just to get your walk over with. But that’s not the case at all.
Instead, you stop to say hello to all the things you have not seen since the last Ice Age. Seed heads reflecting every speck of sunshine in their feather-light curls. Deep red strands of willow, busy with ground-nesting birds sheltering at their base. Stand-tall stems of hydrangea and viburnum, their brown flower heads perfectly preserved by autumn’s dry chill. Thick-berry branches of crabapple, and weeping trees – maybe almond, maybe beech – spreading their curtain for theblossoms that are waiting in the wings.
It was a gorgeous day in the gardens. My ears are still a little cold, though. I can’t say I mind all that much.
Now it really is November, as we all knew it would be one day. Overnight, the wind and temperatures remembered their purpose – to chill and nip us, and give everyone a reason to cuddle up and sleep.
The cold reminds us of our good fortune. To be able to come inside and warm up, to linger in in the security of lights burning, to accept the companionship of darkness in quiet and safety. We have more than we need to face winter, and most of us know that isn’t the case for everyone.
This week was full of the ways I need my friends – and I hope a few of the ways I help when I can. Sometimes, when Sunday arrives, and I look back at everything that has happened, I can’t believe it. As much as I try to pull back with all the resistance my anxiety can muster, life still hurtles me forward. Events that must happen, like groceries and doctors visits. Moments that offer themselves as a path to a different future, like a disappointment or a kiss. And the disruptions we go looking for – another window full of flowers, a farewell to a favorite ghost.
Bundle all that happens into winters’ nights, to cure and transmute with a power that moves so slowly it can’t be seen. But we can feel it in the November air, sparkling our blessings like all the stars in the chill black sky.